Early in the millennium, Mazda was an amorphous brand for Toyota or Honda buyers who couldn't afford either. Then came the "Zoom-Zoom" moniker, a new logo--the so-called "winged M"--and over the past three years, vehicles like Mazda3, Mazda5 or RX8 that people buy because of the way they look.
Now, Mazda is in the midst of redesigning again. The company last year developed a broad design language called Nagare--one of many Japanese words for "flow"--and it is manifested in a series of concept cars like Kabura and one called Senku. Next year the company will start infusing production vehicles with the Nagare design philosophy, all part of what design director Franz von Holzhausen calls "emotion in motion."
"We know from hard data that people buy Mazda cars for their style," he says.
Von Holzhausen, who was appointed to his position in February 2005, oversees Mazda vehicle design and development at the company's 25-person research and development facility in Irvine, Calif., one of three Mazda studios--after Frankfurt and Hiroshima.
As design manager at General Motors, Von Holzhausen was responsible for managing the design process for the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky concept and production vehicles. Before that, he was assistant chief designer for Volkswagen, where he worked on Audi TT, VW Microbus and Beetle.
"Nagare kicks off a whole new design philosophy," he says. "When I first came here, we recognized that we had a strong brand idea, but the components weren't organized or focused. Internationally, Mazda sees itself in an evolution stage, with a strong dealership system, and a strong portfolio. Our goal is to become a strong and mature brand, to break out of the second tier of automakers, with Nagare leading the design."
He explains that Nagare design language is borrowed from textures in nature, such as a sand dune with ripples running across its crest. "It represents motion. The car needed to express that to the extreme. The car has to have the feeling of constantly being in motion."
One concept car that bears the Nagare name was unveiled this year. It is intended to suggest where Mazda might be in 2020.
While the Irvine studio has led the global design direction, he says, each studio has been involved in the development of Mazda's concepts.
"At the moment we are leading the design direction for Mazda. Hiroshima designs and builds production vehicles. We are the advanced studio constantly looking at consumer mindset," he says, adding that the company is using a kind of guerrilla approach to concept cars to get them into the public eye.
"We show up with the vehicles at car shows, we drive around the neighborhood. We park them in places where they are visible. Because we are small, we don't have the ability to have a loud voice. We have to use alternatives."
As Mazda has created more "Nagare" concepts, and gears up for production cars bearing the new design cues, it is "dialing back" the more extreme expressions of the Nagare look, and aligning them more and more with where the portfolio is now.
"Instead of 20 years away, it's five years away from now," Von Holzhausen says. "We started with a bold statement and now we're dialing it back to reality."