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Design climbs into the driver's seat

Japanese automakers’ attention to the style stakes is on display at the Tokyo Motor Show, but they still need to shift it up a gear.

Toyota appears unstoppable as it prepares to overtake General Motors in the race to be the world’s No. 1 carmaker.

However, some cracks have begun to appear in the Japanese giant’s strategy for success — which has so far been built on the single foundation of superior product quality.

A recent spate of large-scale recalls, together with improved quality from rivals such as Hyundai and Ford, see the automotive juggernaut shifting its attention to other factors that drive sales. One of the key ones is design.

The various makers’ displays at Tokyo Motor Show, now on at Makuhari Messe Convention Center in Chiba Prefecture, turn the spotlight on several future directions in which Japanese makers are heading to become design-competitive.

The biggest single thrust is “eco-design.” The Toyota Prius hybrid has been one of the most important successes of the past decade in this field. The first-generation model, though awkward in appearance, became an icon for environmentally friendly vehicles. The second generation embodies masterful design and clean, futuristic looks that maintain the model’s iconic shape that equated Toyota with ecology in consumers’ eyes. It isn’t sexy, but it is a design triumph of the highest level.

While Japan leads in clean-car technology, though, it’s not just Toyota that’s aiming to raise design levels to the heights of their technology. Mitsubishi’s iMiEV SPORT, Nissan’s Pivo 2 and Toyota’s FT HS are all also standouts for their eye-catching styles.

Then again, there’s the new market Japanese makers have built for inexpensive high-tech performance cars such as Subaru’s Impreza WRX and MMC’s Evolution series — bland sedans modified with a bevy of aggressive air intakes, spoilers and flared fenders. Nissan’s contribution is its brutal GTR prototype, heir to the legendary Skyline GTR throne, whose design owes more to “Transformers” than the Venus de Milo.

Meanwhile, there are Japanese “world cars,” too — basic-level models saleable the world over in the same form that are a Holy Grail of the automotive industry. Honda’s Fit and Mitsubishi’s Galant are sold successfully in more than 100 countries, where their clean, sharp designs of substantial character are able to cross cultural and economic borders.

A further look around the show reveals the power of a coherent design strategy. BMW took a massive risk with a new, radical styling direction spearheaded by Chris Bangle, and it is enjoying record sales. Audi reinvented its brand with a new take on German proportions and a unified grille design. Even GM has woken from a long hibernation with a slew of strong designs.

Now, too, the elements are in place in most Japanese companies to improve design quality — but it’s execution that will divide the winners from the losers.

Nissan design set an early pace and Toyota is now running with it. Honda can produce excellent one-offs such as the new Fit, but its overall design philosophy remains a mystery. Mazda has the most coherent design identity, with signature front ends and skillfully sculpted forms; an achievement made easier by a limited lineup but still no less impressive for that.

Subaru seems unable to deliver consistent design quality as unique as its world-class engineering — witness the recent and nondescript Impreza.

Meanwhile, Mitsubishi has launched a series of strong designs such as its masterful i minicar and unique D-5 minivan, interesting for having few elements in common while both being very Mitsubishi in character.

None of these advances belies the need for an overall realization among Japanese automakers that design is as important as engineering in a culture whose mantra has long been “We will succeed if we make a quality product” — despite the fact that many rivals are fast catching up on quality. But while design has consistently held back Japanese carmakers in their conquests, lackluster generic designs have never been the result of a lack of domestic talent — proved by the likes of Satoshi Wada, who penned Audi’s iconic A6 sedan, and Ken Okuyama, as design director for Italian powerhouse Pinafarina, who shaped a few recent Ferraris. Instead, Japanese corporate culture has been the culprit.

Until Carlos Ghosn brought in Shiro Nakamura as Nissan’s vice president in charge of design, no Japanese car company had elevated a designer to an executive post. Design, while given lip service in-house, was never as important to them as it is to consumers.

Change on this front has been forced from without, with the need to add value in the form of styling that makes consumers actively desire a product.

Toyota learned its lesson with the Vitz, launched in 1998. At a time of slumping sales of its bland compacts such as the Corolla II, executives were shown a preproduction model but disliked it, and dealers wanted nothing to do with it. Pushed through nonetheless, the stylized Vitz became an instant hit and upped the value of design within the company.

The developments seen at Tokyo Motor Show result from improved design management as much as anything else. Periods of design greatness in car companies have always had charismatic managers in charge. The leadership styles of Nissan’s Nakamura and Toyota’s Wahei Hirai highlight the changes going on. Both have overseen the shaping of design philosophies that encompass their respective product histories and Japanese roots, and which provide a roadmap for their international design teams.

With Nakamura at the helm and Ghosn’s understanding of the value of design, Nissan has gained kudos from its rush of creativity with hits such as the 300Z, March, Cube and Infinity Coupe. Hirai’s job is far more difficult in Toyota’s deeply conservative culture, but it is of key importance as the brand’s image as the lone quality leader is slowly eroded.

In short, design will no longer be a luxury when consumers stop buying their cars for quality. It’s a point not lost on executives — but it takes time to turn around a gargantuan ship like Toyota. It’s time they stepped on the gas before they’re left in the dust.

Bob Sliwa, author of “How Lexus became #1,” is an authority on automotive design and branding, who has has written for many domestic and foreign publications.

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