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Mazda design chief Ikuo Maeda brings new meaning to zoom-zoom

Tue, 09 Mar 2010

Ikuo Maeda, the new design chief at Mazda Motor Corp., earned the nickname "Speedy" for his lead-footed driving on the race course and off.

He may be the only standing auto executive to have had his license revoked--twice.

It's only natural then that Maeda, who took the design reins last April, views himself as the rightful guardian of Mazda's zoom-zoom brand heritage. And he has the bloodline to prove it.

Not only did Maeda design the bold, muscular silhouette of today's RX-8 sports car. But a generation before, his father--himself a Mazda stylist--designed the RX-8's spiritual ancestor, the original RX-7.

"I was a real car lover long before I started designing cars," Maeda said in an interview at Mazda's headquarters in this western Japanese port city.

"There are lots of car enthusiasts at Mazda, but I think I'm at the top."

Small wonder that keeping Mazda sporty and dynamic is Maeda's top priority. The 50-year-old races MX-5 Miata roadsters in his spare time and keeps a yellow modified race-spec Lotus Elise in his private garage. And despite Maeda's ties to the RX-8, his big pet project is bringing back the RX-7.

"I do have a strong yearning to revive the RX-7 during my tenure," Maeda said. "But in order for that to happen, we need the U.S. economy to come back, first and foremost."

In the meantime, the new-generation Mazda5 minivan, with its wavy side paneling, is a sign of things right around the corner. The styling--meant to impart a fluid, natural movement--springs from the Nagare series of concept cars Maeda has worked on. The series began three years ago under the direction of his predecessor, Laurens van den Acker, who came from Ford Motor Co.

"It is like a Japanese garden," Maeda said of the inspiration for Nagare, which means "flow" in Japanese. "It encapsulates nature in a restricted area. It re-creates nature in something man-made."

Mazda2 arrives in summer

The Mazda5 reaches U.S. showrooms early next year. But Americans will get an earlier taste for Maeda's work in the Mazda2 subcompact, which goes on sale this summer.

In 2008, a panel of international journalists voted the Mazda2 the World Car of the Year after its global debut.

"Among designers, the new Mazda2 is considered his best design," said Imre Molnar, dean of the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. "The car is attractive and lightweight, like a sports car. It has the potential to be more successful than their Miata."

The car showcases several points central to Mazda's new image. Key to the look are prominent front fenders; a wide, smiling grille; and a sculpted character line imparting sinewy, muscular tension.

The hardest part about the Mazda2 was sculpting a flared side contour line that didn't look comical in proportion to the compact's short length, Maeda said.

Maeda first experimented with this athletic look as chief designer of the RX-8. He gave the sports car the pronounced front fenders and barrellike carriage that marked a departure from the sleek RX-7.

"In Mazda, the front so-called mouth is the starting point for the motion, and it literally flows from head to tail," Maeda said. "Being in motion is the look we are always trying to achieve."

Maeda said he has yet to begin an entirely new project since taking the design helm at Mazda. While he's eager to impart his own stamp on upcoming cars, he is tight-lipped about new directions. Mazda intends to give guidance on future design trends this year.

"As designers, we are constantly challenging ourselves to find something fresh and new," Maeda said.

But some basics will remain unchanged, he added.

"Being athletic is the core quality for us, part of our DNA. It's something that will always be there, no matter what," Maeda said. "It is also in my veins."

Derek Jenkins, design chief for Mazda North American Operations, said Maeda will pursue a more premium and mature feel, whereas van den Acker valued a dynamic, sporty look.

"He is definitely putting his own stamp on Mazda," Jenkins said.

Designer dynasty

Design critics say Mazda's image is strong and unified because of its Nagare series of far-out concept cars, such as the Taiki, Kiyora, Ryuga and Kazamai. The new challenge will be channeling that look into something mainstream.

"The company became too focused on nonfunctional styling," said Kuni Ito, an auto design professor at the College for Creative Studies. Mazda must focus on production models that fulfill utility but are still infused with emotion, he said.

"Now is the time to return to a solid production car," Ito said. "It may not necessarily be glamorous, but he will gain the respect of the consumer in this kind of social climate."

Emphasizing function over form is something pioneered by Maeda's father.

Growing up in a Mazda household, it wasn't long before the young Maeda fell in love with cars. Perhaps influenced by his father, he was initially interested in the mechanics at play.

Matasaburo Maeda, now 77, worked at Mazda from 1962 to 1992. He was a strict form-follows-function man who loved to take cars apart and put them back together.

The elder Maeda is known for developing the Mazda design system of bringing designers, engineers and modelers into the same room so they could collaborate.

He drew inspiration from the industrial efficiency of Germany's Bauhaus movement--and it showed in the simplistic elegance of his designs, such as the boxy Luce sedan sold in Japan from 1969 to 1990.

The younger Maeda eventually thought his father's designs were too boring.

"I am more emotional," he said. Their clashing visions still go mostly unspoken.

"We hardly speak about design," Maeda said. "Because we respect each other so much, we know that if we start debating design, it will only end ugly. So we deliberately avoid the topic."

Speed demon

Unlike his father, who drove nothing but Mazdas his entire life, the younger Maeda has owned cars from more than 30 rival makers--including the prized Lotus.

That brings us to his moniker at Mazda.

"Maeda-san's nickname is Speedy due to his excellent driver skills," said van den Acker, now the top stylist at Renault. "He got this name while on assignment in the California studio."

Maeda worked at Mazda's California studio from 1987 to 1991 and at Ford Motor Co.'s design shop in Detroit in 1999. His time in the United States taught him the importance of creativity and the financial side of the auto business, he said. But Maeda's need for speed has deeper roots.

In his youth, Maeda twice had his Japanese driver's license revoked for speeding. To this day, his license is colored-coded blue to indicate a checkered past under Japan's license system. A driver with a perfect record gets a gold-colored license.

Maeda's second run-in with the law occurred shortly after he started at Mazda. He was nabbed doing 100 mph on an expressway in downtown Tokyo, more than double the limit. An automatic-camera speed trap captured the moment.

"They took a very clear picture of me driving by myself," Maeda recalled of getting the ticket in the mail. "I had racing gloves on, but no helmet. Anybody could recognize me."

Mark Rechtin contributed to this report

By Hans Greimel- Automotive News