Embedded in a hillside deep in Japan’s Kanagawa prefecture lies Nissan’s Global Design Center. There, Executive Design Director Satoru Tai focuses on Nissan’s next design horizon – a new direction that speaks in simple, clean lines.
Tai-san sees a future where less is more in terms of what we see and what we interact with in our daily lives. His first teaser of Nissan’s design direction was the IMk concept, revealed earlier this month as a prelude to the 46th Tokyo Motor Show. The vision has come fully into focus at the show with the unveiling of the bold Ariya Concept. Together, these electric vehicles promise to usher in a new era of design made possible by Nissan Intelligent Mobility, the company’s vision for changing how vehicles are powered, driven and connected to society.
The Nissan Ariya Concept – the successor to the IMx concept vehicle shown at the 2017 Tokyo Motor Show – provides a glimpse of a near-future midsize crossover EV from Nissan. The IMk reimagines the compact urban commuter, catering to a broad customer base in search of something new, chic, compact and powerful to drive. The two vehicles represent Nissan’s completely reimagined design philosophy, centered on seamless connectivity and a minimal, cohesive design, mixed with pure electrified power.
In a recent interview, Tai expanded on Nissan’s new design direction and how it seamlessly blends into the customer’s connected lifestyle.
Q1: Why did Nissan establish a new design direction?
Tai: The Ariya Concept and IMk are the latest design icons of Nissan Intelligent Mobility. They are bookends that showcase the broad spectrum of the Nissan Intelligent Mobility landscape, from the urban commuter to the family-size crossover SUV. Both vehicles embody the possibilities of instant, clean, powerful driving performance in a seamless manner. They express the connectivity and autonomous capability of the coming era in a distinct, Nissan-branded way.
Q2: What are the key points of the new design language?
Tai: Nissan’s new design philosophy centers on a Japanese minimal approach to accent advanced technology that blends seamlessly into the two concept vehicles and a customer’s lifestyle. These serve as key elements in what we call “Timeless Japanese Futurism.” A minimal approach mainly refers to the physical form – such as the IMk’s simple, yet striking exterior shape or Ariya Concept’s sleek body that minimizes drag coefficient. These seamless expressions display the potential of EVs and future driving technology in a distinctly Japanese way.
Timeless Japanese Futurism is a way for Nissan to maintain an iconic, traditional Japanese flavor, but reimagined with a refreshing perspective.
Q3: What are some examples of “traditional Japanese flavor” in these vehicles?
Tai: Both the Ariya Concept and the IMk feature designs that incorporate Japanese DNA, or “J-DNA”. These include the traits of iki (chic), utsuroi (transition), ma (spatiotemporal openings) and kabuku (behave boldly against the social grain). For the Ariya Concept, we incorporated a geometric kumiko pattern into the front grille, or what we now call the “shield,” which blends seamlessly into the clearcoat. This pattern is also echoed in the interior with the andon lighting, which shows the openness of the footwell and the doors.
For the IMk, we drew from a different inspiration that resulted in a koushi (latticed) pattern and mizuhiki (tight woven rope) pattern. This is echoed in the shield and on the roof graphic, rear accents and wheels.
Q4: Why is this “Japanese minimalist” trait important?
Tai: We needed to reset how we design, because the way these vehicles are powered and used has changed. EV technology is here – and the entire mindset, from architecture to noise – is quite different than a traditional internal combustion engine vehicle.
EVs are quiet and powerful, so we wanted to reflect that in our vehicles with a design language that’s clean and minimal, yet still emotional, powerful, attractive and sleek. It’s not easy to represent an entirely new automotive movement with something that’s visually simple.
Q5: What did you focus on in particular with these two vehicles?
Tai: It’s all about the proportion and the potential offered by 100% electric platforms. So we asked ourselves, how do we tailor the design over this new unique platform? How do we showcase the proportions?
For the Ariya Concept, we started with an elevated stance and a sleek, linear body, expressing motion sitting on large wheels. Satin copper arches highlight the airy, flat floor cabin to create something drastically different from conventional gasoline-powered SUVs. The Ariya Concept’s EV platform allows for D-segment roominess in a C-segment vehicle.
With the IMk, we wanted to convey not just visual seamlessness, but also seamlessness in terms of connectivity, evident by its prismatic instrument and control panel layout. This will inspire a later phase of Nissan Intelligent Mobility form language and design.
Q6: Do these concept vehicles share any similar elements?
Tai: The exteriors of both strike a balance between beautiful and exclusive, with proportions that show what’s possible with Nissan’s 100% EV platforms. For both concepts, the front view makes a strong impression. The grille is replaced with a “shield” that incorporates an illuminated Nissan emblem in the center. The lower portion is bordered by subtle lighting.
The shield is the vehicle’s face to the world. It needs to show strength, style and inspiration. A grille is no longer needed for engine cooling, but a shield is very much needed to protect the technology hidden within the vehicles, including radar, cameras and other sensors, such as those that help the vehicle read the road when using the ProPILOT 2.0 driver assistance system.
Q7: Other than size, what are the main differences between the IMk’s interior and that of the Ariya Concept?
Tai: For the Ariya Concept, the interior is slightly darker and moodier than the IMk. We tried to use darker colors on the lower sections and lighter colors above to create a cohesive, layered environment that welcomes you into a futuristic, organic space.
The Ariya Concept’s colors are a deep blue gray. For the IMk they’re much lighter, and airy, like that of a cafe or a chic lounge. The use of colors and textures is really the difference between the two. The vehicles are vastly different in size and class but share qualities that make them chic and appropriate for customers interested in those types of vehicles.
Q8: What about the materials? Not only the types, but also the placement?
Tai: Designers are always searching for new materials and textures, to make interiors engaging and enjoyable. We considered materials that didn’t look heavy, yet gave the impression of solidness, high tech and functional.
For example, in the IMk, the surfaces are treated with anti-soiling agents to prevent stains and fingerprints. The lighter color, which isn’t traditional for a car in this class, is very trendy in home interiors and cafes. We wanted to create that light and airy environment in the IMk, while keeping it durable.
The IMk’s carpet is made of a new fiber that creates an open atmosphere but still feels very cozy. This is one of the many elements that make this vehicle very chic.
Copper tones are used throughout both concept vehicles, adding brightness to the interior and enhancing the premium impression. Copper has been an important part of traditional Japanese culture, in which artisans formed the metal into functional works of art. We carefully curated the use of copper to add an emotional value that communicates the dawn of a new automotive era – rather than simply using expensive materials or shiny textiles.
Q9: The IMk’s interior is unusually elegant and stylish for a kei-car. What were your priorities in designing the cabin?
Tai: The IMk’s cabin possesses a feeling of openness. The shapes and color details are designed to suggest an uplifting space. We wanted the IMk to be chic, so we gave it a bench seat to create the same welcome feeling as a lounge or cafe. We also wanted to keep some richness in the section of the doors, the instrument panel and even the seats, by giving them the right texture through their materials.
Of course, if we kept everything flat here, there would be more physical space. But we would lose some of the beauty, and we didn’t want to go that route. The IMk isn’t about being more spacious than a traditional small car. The goal is to be an upscale, stylish partner with a relaxing space that drivers will really want to own.
Q10: The IMk concept is the size of a kei car in Japan. How did the new concept EV platform influence its design?
Tai: The IMk is a car for people who’ve never before considered buying a vehicle of this size. The electrification of this urban commuter, and the EV platform, elevate the genre to a completely new level. It will capture a new marketplace, such as luxury-car owners in Tokyo who want stylish exclusivity and great performance, yet still want to be able to find a place to park. The level of sophistication and chic textures is unmatched in the segment.
Q11: What about the new EV platform under the Nissan Ariya Concept?
Tai: The EV platform allows the Ariya Concept to have a flat cabin floor. This results in extremely efficient packaging, with a more open footwell and thinner instrument panel and seats. This in turn allows for a pleasant space for the driver and occupants to relax and socialize. However, because of the flat floor, all the interior materials are much more visible. Traditionally, the floor of the cabin is hidden by shadows and overhanging interior components.
Now, every design element is front and center, especially the instrument panel and seats. So it was vital that we used complementary materials and colors, ensuring that the components blended with each other seamlessly.
Q12: Who did you consider to be the target customers for these vehicles?
Tai: For the Nissan Ariya Concept, the target customer is a young driver with a family. We really wanted this car to be an expression of that person. Ideally, I see this person as someone who can afford anything but chooses this vehicle, because it relays a strong EV message in a cool, sporty way.
For the Nissan IMk concept, we envisioned customers who’ll feel empowered and confident when driving this car. The stylish and comfortable interior design elements make it their own unique room to relax in. Therefore, we tried to think about the various aspects of their daily lives and express them in the design, inside and out.
Q13: Was any part of the Nissan Ariya Concept – which we hear may be close to production – designed with fully autonomous driving in mind?
Tai: As Nissan’s design language moves forward, we always have to keep autonomous driving in mind – for today and for expanded use tomorrow.
The Ariya Concept was designed with the latest ProPILOT 2.0 driver assistance system in mind. This system allows for hands-off, eyes-on driving in certain cases. During those situations, you can stretch your legs all the way out, relax and enjoy the benefits of the EV interior architecture. It allows for a new spatial experience, highlighted by the andon lighting in the lower footwell. This is not only an attractive design element, but also effectively shows the usability of space.
Q14: What do you want people to take away from these concepts?
Tai: These concepts show how we’re redefining the form language for Nissan. Both the Ariya Concept and IMk incorporate hints of Japanese DNA with their minimal approach to surfaces and shape, yet are seamless and state-of-the-art. This is the concept of “Timeless Japanese Futurism.” The word minimal is self-evident, but seamless goes deeper. It has both a physical quality, such as flush exterior door handles and smooth panel transitions, as well as a spiritual one, in the way it expresses both Nissan Intelligent Mobility technology and Japanese precision and craftsmanship. Combined, these concepts will define the future of Nissan design.