The Mazda 3 hatch unveiled last night could have arrived as a very different beast. Indeed, had Mazda's General Manager Design Division, Laurens van den Acker (pictured), arrived at the Japanese carmaker just a few months later than his February 2006 appointment, the stage would have been set for a much more conservative Mazda five-door.
As it is now, the Japanese carmaker is looking to take things up to the German benchmark -- even the hot GTI model.
When van den Acker, the man behind Mazda's current series of showcars and the maker's new Nagare design language, arrived at the carmaker's Hiroshima headquarters, the 3 Hatch (more here) was still in prototype form. It was also in trouble.
"Essentially they had the first round of designs finished. They were down to two full size models and they had just gone through a complete market clinic -- England, Spain, Germany, America and so on, and the models had just failed... To the point where they weren't testing any better than the current model," van den Acker told the Carsales Network at last week's Mazda3 sedan launch in Los Angeles.
"One of my first meetings was with the head of R&D and he said 'We're in trouble --do we need to postpone job one [production start]; find a new chief [designer]... What do we need to do?'"
According to van den Acker, senior Mazda staffers agreed with the clinic.
"Sometimes the market really helps you -- and [therefore] we completely readdressed the front and the side and the rear.
"Essentially what happened was the [original] approach to the Mazda2, 3 and 6 was small, medium and large. So it [the 3] was sort of a shrunken version of the 6, with a slightly smaller grille; the 2 even smaller. And what had happened [in the process] was the car had lost its aggressiveness and expressiveness."
According to van den Acker, the Mazda6 looked more expressive than the 3.
"It can't be that way," he explained.
"The [proposed 3 hatch's] cabin had been extended to provide a lot more interior space, but as a result the car started to look like a family car and in the side view had lost its compactness. It actually looked like a stretched hatchback. Compared to the current car, it had lost its sportiness and the rear had gotten very soft and lost its edgy-ness.
"Very quickly we said we need a front-end that's more expressive than the 6 because it's the younger brother. We shrunk the cabin again, because the compactness of the Mazda3 is what is so exciting -- I'm talking hatchback frankly now, not sedan; it was the lead vehicle. And then the rear-end, we sharpened it up.
"I didn't want to throw it away [the rear-end]... On the hatchback we wanted to create more of a coupe-like feeling so we tried to make it look as compact as possible. Instead of connecting the lower swage line with the bumper, we had it sweep up and connect to the rear glass, so it gets a 2+2 kind of feel. Still obviously with room for four people, but it feels tighter.
"Kurisu-san [chief designer of both generations of 3, Kunihiko Kurisu] and the design team turned it around really real quick -- they did a fantastic job," van den Acker explained.
"What was also very important in the development of the hatchback was James Muir, our president from Mazda Europe -- he really pushed us to go aggressive. I think without him we wouldn't have come this far," van den Acker opined.
"We had a review where he was telling me how we advertise [Mazda3] in Italy. The Mazda ad in Italy was "Hey Golf, see you outside!"
"I'll see you outside became an important theme for us. It was, like, does the car have it yet? Is it that aggressive? That became the benchmark we had to have. It helped us to get over the hump."
Also adding drama to the 3 was Mazda's latest design language. The changes the ex-Ford designer was spearheading took place in parallel to the development of the first of Mazda's four Nagare concept cars (Nagare more here, Ryuga, Furai more here and Kazamai more here).
"At the same time while we were doing this, the first of the Nagare concept cars was being developed. At the time they were being developed in parallel, we already knew about the next generation [of 6 and 3] but it was too early to really convert [concept car to production car]... Too big a bridge to cross," van den Aker admits.
"You've got to take calculated risks. Frankly when the Nagare showcar came out [at the Los Angeles Auto Show two years ago] we had no clue if it would be successful. We thought it was beautiful but, hey, we said let's hear what [other] people think, what [other] designers think...
"Because the reaction seemed to be quite positive, it started to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now it's easy to look back and say Nagare was it [the new 3] all the time but when you just have one car sitting there, you know..."
But van den Acker confides that if Nagare and its follow-up Ryuga coupe had not been a success, the 3 could not have been tweaked a third time.
"No, what would have happened would have been... Well, this [the Mazda3] would not have started to evolve into Nagare -- it would have started to evolve into something else. This was a proper design from the start
"Sure we added some Nagare to the Mazda3. Things like the headlights, the fluidity of the surfaces -- [but] we couldn't have done it if we didn't have the [Nagare] showcars. They just sort or reconfirmed we were on to something."
Van den Acker stopped short of the full 'conversion' though.
"We didn't want to go as far yet as starting to introduce waves on the surfaces. This car was finished by July-August , so there was no time... You still have to learn how to play these new instruments."
But there will be much more of Nagare in the next 3, and before that in the next all-new Mazda6, due in 2011.
"Absolutely [you will see more radical designs], and then we will have the benefit of completely new platforms. Now, you've seen proportional changes that are very small but when you start to re-engineer a platform [more opportunities arise]."
That said, the global design head of Japan's most adventurous mass market car company is far from disappointed with the progress made to date. The current car may be a compromise, but it's not constrained, he says.
"I don't see the new car as constrained, but as designers you always want bigger wheels; you always want shorter overhangs. You always want stuff, you know... In a funny way the bad research result was the best thing that could have happened [to the new 3]. We wouldn't have had this [car, without the bad clinics] -- if the results had been average we might have said 'let's just do it'.
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