We suggested a year ago that car companies tend to embark on radical new design directions when they desperately need to — a marque’s product image is down, sales are tanking, blood is in the water, sharks are circling and smacking their leathery lips. We offered Cadillac, Chrysler and Nissan as examples and tossed in BMW as an interesting exception.
This year, it’s appropriate to examine troubled Mitsubishi and Saturn (plus up-to-now uncompetitive interior design at GM) with a side glance at increasingly successful Audi.
Mitsubishi North American design chief Dan Sims reaches forward by exploring the marque’s roots.
We’ll see two early moves in Mitsubishi’s new direction — an all-new 2006 Eclipse sportster and a (Dodge Dakota-based) Raider pickup — unveiled at January’s 2005 Detroit North American International Auto Show. Both were teased by radical concepts at last year’s NAIAS, and the Concept E sports coupe was fairly close to the ’06 Eclipse.
Not that Mitsu’s current products don’t look good. The Galant sedan and Endeaver SUV are appealing designs awash in a sea of competition, while the rally-bred Lancer Evolution small sedan overcomes its boxy basic shape with a monster wing and ember-hot performance.
Still, with the parent company beset by scandals in Japan and its U.S. arm suffering a convergence of that plus a bunch of bad loans to insolvent or irresponsible members of its youthful target market, a healthy dose of design excitement seems in order. So we asked Mitsubishi R&D America Design Center Manager Dan Sims what might be over the horizon.
Heritage and DNA
“We’re in a unique position,” he began. “Unlike some of our European counterparts, Mitsubishi manufacturs a wide variety of vehicles … everything from small K-size cars in Japan to SUV-type vehicles. It doesn’t make sense for us to have an approach similar to BMW’s, for example, where they apply ‘flame surfacing’ to virtually all their cars.
“We’ll be getting back to our roots, our core values, what Mitsubishi DNA is all about. We’ve been doing a lot of soul searching, and we have a lot to draw from both in motor sports and exciting vehicles from our past.
“One thing Mitsubishi represents is ‘fun to drive’ — our marketing people have called it ‘spirited cars for spirited people.’ Our cars are engaging, not appliances. They don’t isolate you from the road. So we want to design to reflect that — muscular, athletic, agile.
Another core value is a strong presence in the SUV world, including off-road racing. Another is unique vehicles — we’ve found little white spaces in the market that we’ve jumped into. Still another attribute is strength — a lot of tuners like our vehicles because the engine blocks are so strong that they can tweak them and add a lot of power, and they hold up.”
How will Mitsubishi translate such attributes into its future designs? ”You’ll see our designs going in a cleaner, simpler and bolder direction,” Sims continued. “We want them to be recognizable and distinctive — you look at the car, and it’s very clear what it does and what its intent is. We went through a stage of geomechanical designs — geometric and machine-like — now we’re shifting to a more emotional direction. I also want our designs to be simple enough that someone can describe a car’s side view by drawing three or four lines. The current Eclipse has a line that goes along the fenders and three strakes in the side. If you draw those lines for anyone, they’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, I know that car.’
“One other thing is a wheel emphasis. We want to shrink-wrap the body as much as possible to enhance the wheels, which are shoved out to look very stable, nimble and driver oriented. That’s going to be a character of our future designs — that look of stability.”
|The next Eclipse, based on the Concept E, doesn’t necessarily set a theme for all future Mitsubishis, though it does wear the family face, a wind split feature with the three-diamond logo.|
“You can imagine a structure along the bottom and around the wheel openings and the body as a flexible membrane shrink-wrapped over the chassis. We don’t want an amorphic, non-defined shape. We want the car to look like it has a sub-structure under the skin with muscles and skin above that structure. It’s a look that says, ‘This is a muscular, athletic, high-performance car.’ Yet it’s very simple and clean, not overly busy. There are no extraneous or unnecessary lines. Every line is there because it needs to be.”
Is that an example of “organic” design? “Our designs are not pure organic,” he responded, “because there’s contrast between soft flowing forms and sharp, sheer forms. The Concept E has very muscular, soft fender shapes, but they’re highlighted, almost like a suit with creases in the pants and sleeves. Imagine a weightlifter wearing a suit … his muscles pushing the fabric of the suit out in certain areas. Yet other areas of the suit have sharp lines that set him off, making him look distinctive and sharp. That can be handled with varying degrees of formality. On a sedan, you might want more of the creases; on a sports car, more of the muscle showing. In both cases, the cars look athletic and fun to drive. The sport truck also has some of that same design philosophy — very muscular, kind of stealthy, but highlighted by some sharp lines.”
|While the 2006 Mitsubishi Raider pickup will share mechanicals with the Dodge Dakota, design chief Dan Sims says the outer sheetmetal is all Mitsubishi.|
“We’re not going to take one surfacing technique and apply it to absolutely everything,” he asserted,” because we have different types of vehicles. We don’t want to abandon what we have. We want to take elements of what’s there and push them forward to differentiate ourselves from other manufacturers. But you won’t see a sedan from us that looks like a brick. When you look at it from the top, the corners will be chamfered off and the wheels thrust out to the corners. Even while it’s standing still, it will look like it’s moving — that type of attitude.
“The fronts of our vehicles will have a definite similarity — this wind split feature with the three-diamond logo. You see different expressions on the faces of cars, with headlights as eyes and the grill as the mouth. We want a sort of aggressive, dauntless look to our cars, where they don’t look sleepy eyed or surprised or silly but have a bit more serious expression. That face will continue for a number of years and will continue to evolve.”
|Design chief Dan Sims|
Organization and Process
Because Mitsubishi manufacturs vehicles in the U.S. and Europe as well as in Japan, corporate design leader Akinori Nakanishi oversees studios on all three continents, and all three typically submit competing concepts for new designs regardless of for which market(s) the product is intended. For example, Sims says his U.S. studio is currently working on future concepts much too small for North America.
“Designs that are done here are completely under our control while they’re here,” he explained. “When they’re presented [for review], the corporate board decides in which direction to go. Those decisions are made in Japan.”
However, once a design is selected, the target market’s studio logically finishes and executes it. “The next Galant and Endeavor will be built in Bloomington,” he continued, “so our studio followed up the design work on them. We were responsible for releasing the surfaces and colors, which makes sense because we have local suppliers and engineers. We communicate with our suppliers and with our marketing people next door.”
Risk and Responsibility
Due to the long lead times and huge investments involved in the vehicle business, any meaningful change in product styling carries a high degree of risk. “It is a heavy weight,” Sims agreed. “That’s why our lights are on here past eight o’clock a lot of nights. But there is more than design in it — a lot of pieces of the puzzle have to fit together. You can have an excellent product, but if nobody knows about it, that’s a problem.
“We not only work on the cars but also with the advertising group to ensure that the message we’re trying to convey gets made to the public. We work [in advance] with marketing to ensure that we’re all on the same page, so that when we go to Japan and present the design, we’re all agreeing that this is what this market needs. It’s a heavily integrated process and very people-oriented. You have to get a lot of groups lined up and communicate with a lot of people. But the industry is so capital intensive that the bottom line is that it comes down to product, and it’s up to the design staff to make sure that we’re doing products compelling and attractive enough to get people to part with their hard-earned money to buy them.
In major turnaround mode, do management decisions get a little more bold? Do designers feel less restrained? “Management realizes that we need distinctive designs,” Sims responded, “but we have to work within limited resources. We have to be as creative and work as hard and efficiently as possible with the resources we have.
“The company has to weigh its priorities. Everybody’s looking at costs and efficiencies, so it’s up to the designers to be advocates for the customer so that when those costs and efficiencies are addressed, you leave in place what the customer wants. You need to make sure that where the customer touches and feels the car, it’s appealing and has all the hot buttons that he or she wants. It’s hard, because it’s an unscientific thing, and you can’t always clinic every bit of the car.”
How does he feel about future Mitsubishi products? “We’ve got two introductions at Detroit and more very exciting products coming next year. I think people will be surprised. We’re going to take great products and make them much better.”