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The Japanese Art of European Design

Renault’s VP of design gives Nissan a lesson in selling cars in Europe.

When it comes to design, particularly automotive design, the traffic across the Atlantic is more East to West than U.S. to Europe. There are, of course, notable exceptions. Levi jeans, Jeep Cherokees and Chrysler Voyagers, to name but three.

Anthony Grade, Renault’s vice president of design, knows why so many Japanese cars don’t sell well in Europe.
But Beemers, Mercedes and Volvos are equally welcomed both sides of the great divide. This train of thought was prompted via a conversation with Renault designer Anthony Grade at the Tokyo motor show in October. I was on the Nissan stand looking at the Jikoo, a rather extravagant two-seater concept vehicle when a voice beside me said, “Of course, Tony, it will only ever work in Japan, you understand.” The voice was that of Anthony Grade, Renault’s vice president of car design.

He expanded on his theory. “In Japan, where you are surrounded by youngsters, you’ve got to catch them young and then keep them for life — that’s the trick.” I had already concluded that the Jikoo wasn’t to my taste anyway, and since Grade and I are of similar age, I asked him what had caught his eye. Tucked away in the corner of the Nissan stand was the Redigo, which he thought was really exciting, and not to be dismissed as just another “Japanese cube.”

“The reason there are so many cubes is that they are fashion statements, just for the young in Japan,” said Grade. He singled out the Redigo as his show favorite, and it was easy to understand why. Quite cute, we both agreed. But what, since we were on alliance partner Nissan’s stand, would make it to Europe?

The Fuga, for now a concept, was definitely of interest as a big car replacement. Nissan doesn’t do big cars in Europe very well — and big Renault’s, with the exception of the Espace minivan, don’t sell particularly well outside France.

Grade says that the Nissan Fuga (above) would do well in Europe. Grade found the Nissan Redigo (below) “really exciting.” It was his show favorite.
Of more immediate interest though was the Murano SUV, familiar already in the U.S. where it was designed and built, but now destined for Japan. That means right-hand drive and once that hurdle is crossed, the Murano could sell in the U.K., where it is thought it would sit nicely above the X-Trail.

Nissan expects X-Trail sales to top 10,000 in the U.K. next year, its third year in that market. The theory is that many X-Trail owners, many of whom have never owned a Nissan before, will be ready to trade up and the five-seater Murano could be just the answer.

Not just the U.K., though. “We have a couple in Paris (home to both Renault and Nissan Europe) and they look really great on the road,” Anthony Grade told me.

The reason is that, although big in European terms, the Murano doesn’t look too big on the road. Instead it looks distinctive and rather stylish — as I proved to myself on a subsequent visit to the French capital where, coincidentally, I just happened to see one of those Nissan Muranos.

Peter Horbury, now design chief at PAG, has long held the theory that Japanese auto design lost its direction when the Japanese tried to do curves and ‘soft’ shapes rather than the straight lines and angles that are familiar from the country’s architecture.

This produced those anonymous cars of the late ’80s and ’90s and it wasn’t until the Japanese went back to lines and angles that their designs became distinctive again. And now, as the Fuga proves, they have the courage to go for sexy curves and angles as well. Horbury knows a thing or two about changing for straight lines and boxy shapes to sexy curves. He is the man who transformed the look of Volvo in Europe while managing to retain its traditional ‘safe’ image.

He said, “Heritage should have an influence on modern design, but I think you should remind rather than repeat. People can look at how we evolved Volvo design and will say ‘I can see it’s a Volvo but I don’t know why — but it’s what I want.’ We needed to keep giving them a subconscious reminder of things Volvo.”

In his new job, Horbury wants to put design higher up the agenda at PAG. But he also wants to ensure the different brands look very different even though they might be using common platforms or components.

“As designers we have to be the keepers of the identity. I see my job as bringing people together to stay apart.”

This article was provided exclusively to Automotive Industries by Interchange, a U.K.-based automotive business agency and consultancy servicing media and corporate clients. Anthony Lewis is a partner in Interchange and can be contacted via e-mail at

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Sun. May 26th, 2024

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