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Tokyo Motor Show 2017: Mazda concepts explore future of Kodo design




Mazda has introduced two concept cars at the 2017 Tokyo Motor Show. The Kai hatchback explores the future of the Mazda3, while the Vision Coupe represents a further evolution of the automaker's Kodo design.

IHS Markit Perspective

  • Significance: Mazda is in the process of communicating the future of its design, and has leveraged the 2017 Tokyo Motor Show for this by unveiling the Kai hatchback and the four-door Vision Coupe concept cars.
  • Implications: Mazda has been successful with its Kodo design, developing vehicles that attract highly emotional responses. These concept cars show how Mazda will evolve the Kodo design into future vehicles, building on this design approach as it further refines Mazda premium cars.
  • Outlook: Mazda is working to reinvent its design, demonstrated by the two new concepts at the Tokyo Motor Show, along with its all-new Skyactiv-X engine on display. These new concepts push forward Mazda's central design theme without losing sight of its traditions.

Mazda Motor Corporation has unveiled significant new concept vehicles at the 2017 Tokyo Motor Show, as well as used the event for the first auto show introductions of the next-generation Skyactiv platform and the Skyactiv-X gasoline (petrol) engine. The two concept cars ‒ the Kai hatchback and the four-door Vision Coupe ‒ could be called the near- and mid-term future expressions of the company's Kodo design philosophy, which it terms " Kodo: Soul of Motion design". To underscore the significance of the hatchback concept car, 'kai' is the word for 'pioneer' in Japanese. Mazda invited IHS Markit to examine the two vehicles and discuss them with several key executives in the build-up to the motor show, which opens tomorrow (27 October).

These new interpretations of the automaker's Kodo design approach focus on the effective use of light and shadow to create subtle details, rather than relying on more formal character lines across the body sides of the Kai and the Vision Coupe. Using the interplay of form and space, both vehicles are elegant and vibrant. Instead, Mazda uses tension between light and shadow to create the dynamic and vibrant look of these vehicles. Ikuo Maeda, chief designer for Mazda, says this work with transitions is the primary design feature of the vehicles, and called the approach the "art of light".

Kai concept

The Kai concept previews where Mazda wants to go with its next-generation key hatchback, the Mazda3. The Kai was developed on the new-generation Skyactiv platform and is intended to use the Skyactiv-X gasoline engine, although the concept is heavily laden with concept elements and proportions. While the Kai looks terrific, it may be expected that the production version will be more subtle in design. In announcing the vehicle, Maeda said that it "symbolizes Mazda's vision and can be considered the forerunner to a whole new generation of models". The Kai concept conveys Mazda's efforts to pursue what it calls an expression of new elegance, based on Japanese aesthetic sensibilities. Elegance for Mazda, the company says, is dignified tension, with beauty that is subtle and restrained yet rich and abundant.


Mazda Kai concept. 
Pictures courtesy of Stephanie Brinley.

The face of the Kai concept evolves from the current look, but with more weight and yet a sleeker look, thanks to extremely thin headlights and housings. The sleek look belies the amount of passenger space inside as well. The second row of seats appears extremely roomy and comfortable. Elements that will not reach production include the cameras for side views and the touch-based door handles; although each of these could be mastered for production, the side-view camera systems still face legal hurdles and the door handle could be extremely expensive to execute. Still, the use of these elements in the concept contribute to the aesthetic. As Mazda designer Julian Montousse took IHS Markit through a walkaround of the car, he said that the sculpted body is completely possible from a production standpoint. The Kai is not a sport utility vehicle (SUV), but a very long and low-looking hatchback, although the design may easily be imagined in SUV form as well. For this concept, however, Mazda looked to create an alluring hatchback that was "different from all which had come before".

Vision Coupe

The equally stunning Vision Coupe represents Mazda's design vision of a next generation of vehicles, embodied in a sleek four-door coupe with distinctly rear-wheel-drive proportions. Both the concept cars were developed with a less-is-more approach. Of the Vision Coupe concept, the company said, "By stripping away unnecessary elements, we have revealed the beauty and created a vehicle design that expresses Japan's unique aesthetic." Not unlike design vision statements from other automakers, Mazda's concept plays to its history. Mazda says the Vision Coupe can trace the origins of its elegance to Mazda's R360 Coupe and Luce Rotary coupe. The company said, "In an age preoccupied with efficiency, great effort was devoted to creating beautiful proportions for these two coupes. The playful warmth and beauty they expressed became the cornerstone of Mazda's expression of elegance."


Mazda Vision Coupe concept.
Pictures courtesy of Stephanie Brinley.

IHS Markit asked Maeda about the decision to explore the future of Kodo design and to express the company's design vision through the four-door Vision Coupe. Maeda says that, in an automotive environment focused on utility vehicles, the highest expressions of automotive design continue to be communicated through sedans and coupes. Maeda says this is because those vehicles allow an ideal proportion, and enable more freedom and flexibility to designers. Maeda finds the silhouette of the SUV to be more restrictive. In the case of the Vision Coupe, Mazda wants to evoke the look and feel of supple steel, with surfaces creating a form that is extraordinarily simple and yet conveys a sense of speed. The body sides are smooth, using the interplay of light and shadow rather than angular forms.

Interior design

Mazda's 'jinba-ittai' philosophy, which means ' the unity of horse and rider', extends design beyond the driving dynamics and seeks to create an emotional exterior design. In the Kai and the Vision Coupe concepts, Mazda designers applied the traditional Japanese architectural concept of 'ma' ‒ the intentional use of space between components. The Vision Coupe is a more elegant execution of this, while the Kai is closer to a production design. Montousse confirmed that the Kai's interior is fully producible, although cost may cause Mazda to adapt some elements a little differently from the those of the concept. The Kai and Vision Coupe concepts have curved OLED screens, which may not reach production immediately, for example.

The interiors of the Kai and the Vision Coupe have similar forms, although the Vision Coupe's design is more elegant and exploratory. Both demonstrate a minimisation of technology and infotainment spaces. Mazda is looking at OLED curved screen technology and to develop technology that is more integrated and gives drivers information when they need it. When it is not needed, the idea is to ensure the driver is connected with the driving experience.

The 'ma' philosophy used for the interior is expressed in the instrument panel, door trim, and centre console, designed with open spaces between them. In the Vision Coupe concept, Mazda is also exploring a new approach to infotainment. The curved screens are designed into the dash, fully integrated and harmonised, and are intended to display only when the driver (or the front passenger, presumably) want to interact with them. The Vision Coupe has a touch control in the centre console, which, building on the jinba-ittai, horse-and-rider-as-one philosophy, Maeda says could be compared with the way a rider communicates with a horse by stroking its mane and back. The interior of the Vision Coupe is an elegant solution, completely aligned with the driver-focused orientation of the brand.

Mazda's less-is-more approach is evident in the interior, as is the company's emphasis on a connection between car and driver. As Montousse explained, Kai and Vision Coupe are designed on a driver-centered axis, rather than a vehicle-centred axis. In this way, Mazda recognises the needs of the driver and other occupants are different, and builds an approach to ensure each has needs met and they connect with the car on an emotional level. As an example of this subtle difference in approach, the climate vents are placed lower on the passenger side than the driver's side, rather than being at the same height for both. The idea, according to Montousse, is to ensure the vents are placed at an ideal position for each occupant. As a passenger tends to sit lower in a vehicle than the driver, the positioning of those vents is lower. The vents on the driver's side are optimally placed for driver comfort. In the press statement on the Kai, Maeda said, "The driver is constantly aware of this single driver-centered axis through the cockpit zone and the feeling of being comfortably embraced in a manner that strengthens the connection with the car and creates a sense of communicating with it."

Outlook and implications

Mazda is working towards design reinvention and refining its central philosophy and essential personality, demonstrated by the two new design concepts at the Tokyo Motor Show, along with the all-new Skyactiv-X engine on display. These new concepts push Mazda's central design theme without losing sight of its traditions. Mazda has over decades spent significant and thorough development time and resources in creating vehicles that deliver on the jinba-ittai philosophy, with the next steps to communicate and connect with consumers. The Kai concept is intended to communicate the direction of the next-generation Mazda3, and is nearer to production intent than the Vision Coupe. The Vision Coupe pushes the philosophy further, setting the tone for Mazda's design into the next decade. The Kai provides the transition to the future laid out in the Vision Coupe, although the Vision Coupe is not a prediction of a specific model.

As a relatively small automaker, Mazda is able to develop products for a more specific consumer base. Instead of looking to meet lowest-common-denominator expectations, Mazda has the freedom to develop vehicles with more personal and human attributes. One of the challenges going forward, particularly with industry discussion currently centred on self-driving vehicles, will be reaching that very specific consumer type. An outstanding question also may be whether there are enough customers passionate about driving and the connection to their vehicles to allow Mazda to maintain its 2% global market share. Mazda is betting there are, and leveraging partnerships to ensure it has enough capital to develop these vehicles.

The development of the two concepts was special as well, with Mazda taking a more human-centred approach. Maeda tells us that the effort to maximise the involvement of designers with the clay modelling process and minimise the use of digital simulation is a method for ensuring Mazda's designs have a human feel and generate an emotional connection with owners. While many automakers are increasing their reliance on computer aids for design development ‒ often using clay models toward the end of the process and increasingly sparingly ‒ Mazda believes that there is a handcrafted look and a human element that is not replicable through computers. Maeda calls vehicles designed through computer rendering too clinical and cold. However, Maeda also confirmed that the company does make use of simulations and computer renderings to envision the vehicles in various environments and to ensure timely design development.

The size and rear-drive looks of the Vision Coupe concept do not, however, portend a venturing into a larger segment. According to Masamichi Kogai, CEO of Mazda Motor Company, the automaker will keep its product line-up within the B and C/D segments. However, the four-door coupe concept may be expected to see its closest production manifestation in the next-generation Mazda6 sedan, and the design philosophy will be translated into Mazda's future utility vehicles as well. Although the Kai hatchback is very low to the ground, it is not difficult to imagine a taller SUV based on similar language. It was confirmed that the SUV due for production in the new Toyota-Mazda joint venture plant will be additive to the range. While the plant will have flexible production such that volume may be matched to demand for the Corolla or the SUV, the two vehicles are on independent platforms. The Mazda SUV will not use the Corolla platform.

Both of Mazda's concept cars are driver focused, in an environment where the latest trends and industry innovation is much more focused toward removing the driver's need to control a vehicle directly. Mazda has a finely tuned sense of its role, and understands that not all vehicle consumers want to experience the drive. In this case, Mazda is using its relatively small size to allow closer adherence to its philosophy.

About this article

The above article is from AutoIntelligence Daily by IHS Markit. AutoIntelligence Daily provides same-day analysis of automotive news, events and trends.​​​​​​ Get a free trial.

About The Author

Ms. Stephanie Brinley is Senior Analyst-Americas, IHS Automotive, covering North and South America for the IHS World Markets Automotive service.

She is responsible for a daily update of news, events, interviews and product introduction summaries as well as special research reports and company profiles, providing context for and analysis of industry developments to worldwide subscribers. She joined IHS Automotive in summer 2013 with more than 20 years of experience in the automotive sector, including a decade in automotive analysis, four years' experience in supplier-based strategic communications and as a supplier-OEM marketing liaison, and several years on the editing side of a top automotive enthusiast publication in the United States. Ms. Brinley holds an a Bachelor of Arts in Public Relations and Marketing from Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Mich., and an MBA in Integrative Management from Michigan State University's Eli Broad College of Business, Lansing, Mich., US.