Mazda's current design philosophy is moving in decidedly Zen-like circles. Like a child throwing pebbles into a mirror-still pool of water, the Japanese brand cast the diametrically different Sassou, Senku and Kauri concepts far out into the design community in 2005/6 and waited to see which way the ripples would take them.
From these three focal points an inward momentum was created, an inexorable circular movement towards a production car bearing a completely new Mazda design language. That car, hints Mazda North America's Design Director Franz von Holzhausen, will appear in pre-production form at the company's home auto show in Tokyo later this year.
'It's like a concentric circle,' explains the soft-spoken California-based designer. 'With the Sassou, Senku and Kabura we struck out in a bunch of different directions, but eventually we're going to land in the middle at something that you can go into the showroom and buy. For the moment, however, they're still circling the outer reaches of a design philosophy that Holzhausen has dubbed 'flow', or Nagare in Japanese.
At the Los Angeles Auto Show last November, this new form language physically manifested itself in the first of a troika of striking new concepts: the Nagare. A radical grand tourer for the year 2020 designed by Mazda's studio in Irvine, California, Nagare borrows the most successful elements from its three conceptual forebears and translates them into what Holzhausen describes as a 'concept of a concept car'.
'Flow is the study of how nature expresses motion. If you look at a desert landscape, it appears as if the air is moving across the sand even though you can't see it. That's what we wanted to create: a way of introducing ideas of texture and motion into the surface language,' explains the Pontiac Solstice designer. 'That's the thing: it's not just a stuck-on detail or a cliched road stance. We've got a lot of freedom to explore this.'
The most striking thing about the Nagare's design is the deep etch lines that run along the car's flanks. They converge, fading as they go, to an invisible point above the rear wheelarches before re-emerging and fanning out to form filigree-like strands of orange light that make up the rear light clusters. Like ripples on a sand dune, they create a sense of air moving across the vehicle, of unseen motion - a theme picked up by the twisted lines that form the headlamps. Sidewinder trails are what come immediately to mind.
The Nagare, says Holzhausen, was just the first expression of flow. For the Detroit show in January, the Irivine studio team distilled this idea into a deliberately more feasible and down-to-earth form: the 2010 Ryuga sports car concept. Again, deep etch lines dominate the overall look, and the Senku-inspired shark's head nose and sidewinder lights remain. But the feel is less extreme, especially inside where the Nagare's diamond-pattern seat configuration gives way to a more conventional 2+2 layout. 'It's still about motion,' insists Holzhausen, 'but in a much more calm and quiet way. Like a Japanese rock garden.'
Meanwhile, the Geneva show will debut an even more grounded expression of the philosophy, this time designed by the company's studio in Frankfurt, Germany. Something equally exploratory but more believable, promises Franz. As radical, as avant-garde, as these cars feel now, by the time we get elements and themes into the finished car two years from now, people will be like 'yeah, we've seen this. It's a Mazda'
Personally, I doubt people will be so blase. While parent company Ford's European arm continues to talk in a loud voice about its Kinetic Design philosophy and expressing 'energy in motion', Holzhausen has found a way of actually translating this into something you and I can touch, and hopefully buy. Interestingly, the US-born designer says that the roots of this can be traced back to Spring 2006 edition of Intersection, the one with the Colani concept on the cover: I saw that car, the way it was shot from above with those organic, flowing shapes, and said 'that's the kind of car we need to build'. All my recent concepts have sprung from that point. By Euan Sey. Exclusive online extract from Intersection Magazine.