Shinari: The future of Mazda design

It may only be a 'study model', but we like the future of the Japanese marque's design direction.

Mazda Shinari.

Courtesy of Mazda

Mazda offered a peek into its future as it took the wraps off new concept vehicles and technology in its hometown of Hiroshima. But more than just mere physical displays, it showed that the number four Japanese car maker is taking its "zoom zoom" slogan to heart in its competition against Toyota, Honda and Nissan.

To illustrate this vision, executives at the Mazda Brand Forum unveiled the Shinari, a four-door, four-seat coupe concept, the car that Mazda says will influence designs across the range for the foreseeable future.

Ikuo Maeda, Mazda's design general manager and the man behind the stunning looks of the RX-8, explained that the Shinari's razor-sharp lines "create motion, create movement" even when the car is standing still.

Maeda then referred to past models, such as the 1967 Cosmo Sport, the 1962 Carol, the 1989 MX-5, the 1991 RX-7, as examples of pioneering design by Mazda.

Affordabilty, combined with great design, is another aspect that the Mazda executives like to claim the brand is renowned for, starting with its first passenger car in 1960, the stylish R360 Coupe. While it can be argued that the Eighties and Nineties were not great decades for design - models such as the 323 and 626 from that era being somewhat uninspiring - there were still some great examples with the aforementoned MX-5 and RX-7.

Now, in 2010, we are already seeing examples of better design across the whole Mazda line-up, not just in the sportier models, and with the unveiling of the Shinari at the Brand Forum, we have a tangible sign of what we can expect from the Hiroshima automaker.

It has been in the pipeline for almost five years. The Shinari's forerunner, a 2006 concept car called Nagare (meaning "flow" in Japanese) launched Mazda's "Kodo" ("soul of motion") approach to design, Maeda explained, with its cartoonish low profile, switchblade-narrow windows and modified gullwing doors more the stuff of comic books than something you might realistically see on the roads.

"It was the ultimate athletic design," said Maeda. "Like a cheetah who can get to 100kph in just a few steps."

Under the Nagare design theme, Mazda introduced seven concept cars and ultimately this led to the design of the new Mazda5, a sharp-nosed people carrier that certainly had the upper hand when it came to looks over its competitor, the Toyota Previa.

A second-generation Mazda designer - Maeda's father, Matasaburo Maeda, was responsible for the RX-7 - Maeda took a similarly passionate approach to overseeing the design the Shinari concept: "I decided to return to my original belief that a car is not simply a product of industrial design, but rather a machine that deserves to be cherished."

The Shinari still has some of the impracticalities of a concept car, such as seats that aren't nearly bolstered enough and pop-out door handles that could skewer a small child's eye, but it is far easier to visualise the Shinari as a production vehicle.

"The vision [of the Shinari] is to represent the next generation of Mazda design," said Maeda.

Another priority for Mazda was to make sure the Shinari was a truly aerodynamic machine. On visual inspection, it can be seen that the centre of the lower sections on the front and rear bumpers have been created to optimise the flow of air ailing the underbody of the car.

Inside, the cockpit is very driver-oriented with all the controls relevant for driving separate from those for other functions such as climate control and entertainment. A three-dimensional display in the centre has three modes: business, pleasure and sport in what it has branded its "Human Machine Interface" or HMI. Business mode is for hands-free connectivity to the phone and internet, pleasure is focused on the entertainment and interior lighting, and sport mode activates the paddle shifters and stiffens the suspension for a more involved drive.

Ryo Yanagisawa, Mazda's chief designer, told the Brand Forum that "Shinari" describes the force that allows stong objects and forms to bend, such as bamboo or high tensile steel.

"Bamboo bends and then tries to come back to its original shape; it's the motion of force" said Yanagisawa, referring to the lines of the Shinari, which curve elegantly like the traditional Asian plant.

Mazda executives at the Brand Forum were tight-lipped on whether the stunning Shinari would ever go into production, with Yanagisawa describing it as a "study model".

"Some of the elements will be translated into designs for the future," he said.

"To create the design language, we need a lot of freedom, so that's why we selected the four-door coupe," Yanagisawa said when asked why this body type was used.

"This will differentiate Mazda from other Japanese manufactuers," he said. "Mazda is on the top, the others are bland.

"Is it appealing to all cultures? Is the emotional styling appealing to all?" Yanagisawa asked rhetorically. "I have already shown the concept in a couple of countries and almost everyone appreciates the styling. I have the confidence to push this globally."

When asked if he would like to see the Shinari four-door coupe go into mass production, he simple smiled and said: "I hope so."

Mazda also unveiled its Skyactiv power train technology, involving new engines, transmissions and car platforms.

The car maker plans to strip 100kg from its cars and improve fuel efficiency by up to 20 per cent in diesels and 15 per cent in petrol engines, starting with the 2011 Mazda 2, with a target fuel consumption of 30L/100km.

Takashi Yamanouchi, Mazda's CEO, explained that hybrid and plug-in electric cars are part of a long-term plan to produce greener cars by 2015.