Visit any newsagent in the United States, and you could be forgiven for mistaking America for a nation of sports cars, hot rods, and other performance machines, as these are the vehicles that dominate magazine covers. In reality, though, utility and functionality are at the heart of the American car. Light-duty trucks, vans, MPVs, SUVs and crossovers claim the lion’s share of vehicle sales and their dominance is increasing yearly.
A New Expression of Utility
Nissan, sensing an opportunity to expand the possibilities of personal utility vehicles, presented the Bevel concept at the 2007 NAIAS in Detroit. It was a unique mid-size light truck/SUV hybrid about the size of the Murano, but with a focus on workaday functionality.
"We see an opportunity to expand the range and values of the utility vehicle world," said Bruce Campbell, then Vice President of Design in North America. "In the future, we envision ‘genres’ where each product will be more dedicated and more focused, with the vehicles being much closer to the multi-dimensional aspects of the target buyers."
Nissan’s brief described the Bevel as intended for “The Everyday Hero, men between 45 and 60 years of age with multiple personal interests. They don't need the heavy-duty utility of a pickup or room for a lot of passengers. In fact, they probably drive their vehicles alone more than 90 percent of the time. What they need is an extension of their toolboxes, workshops and garages – so they can easily take their work or hobbies on the road in comfort, style and with unlimited utility.”
An Asymmetrical Monoform Exterior
A quick glance at the Bevel reveals a vaguely retro-styled monoform with asymmetrical glazing and body panels, as well as door treatment. There was almost no brightwork beyond the front grill, which disguised hidden LED headlights.
The form looked deceptively simple, almost toy-like. A closer inspection revealed more complexity, with recesses at the windows and beveled surfacing along the flanks, and LED lights appearing at both front and rear. On the roof there was more asymmetry, with a moonroof and solar panel stretched between hexagonal tiedowns. The whole composition, both in form and graphics, seems vaguely reminiscent of custom vans of the early 1970s or custom kits like the Brubaker Box, popular and influential in California at that time.
The interior was divided into three zones: Comfort, technology, and utility. The driver sits in a comfort zone surrounded by an asymmetrical composition of components, instrumentation and electronics round a large leather-wrapped captain’s chair. Steering – by wire – was reduced to simple handle grips, with screens displaying surrounding road views from rear viewing cameras on a ‘ribbon’ instrument panel that slid forward for driver ingress.
"Use of the moving or floating instrument panel ribbon was made possible by the Bevel's drive-by-wire throttle, braking and steering," said Campbell. "This also allowed us to move the firewall forward by nearly a foot, creating additional room in front for both the driver and an occasional front seat passenger."
The second zone is also centered around the driver with the above-mentioned screens and instrumentation. The Bevel contained an unusual (for the time) amount of digital information projected onto screens. There was even a detachable tablet display for connection to onboard systems while away from the driver’s seat.
The third zone was the utility/pet zone, which contained the other three seats, which were meant to be folded most of the time, a storage area with all manner of compartments, tie-downs and an electrical outlet powered by the rooftop solar panel. There was also a removable pet kennel so that Fido could ride along to one’s appointments. And at the rear there was a slide-out seat or shelf allowing for a sheltered work area under the glazed hatch, which could double as a roof extension.
Mixed Reaction, Advanced Concept
The Bevel received a decidedly mixed reaction from the press and public at the Detroit show and beyond. Some were put off by the asymmetrical composition of design elements, others by the monoform shape and graphics. Others applauded its fresh look into the expanded possibilities of a sport utility vehicle.
Certainly the brown color – burnished almost to a bronze/copper hue – did not help display the design to its best effect, as it tended to make the Bevel look lumpy on the display stand.
The demographic profile of the brief seemed odd – off by about 15 years or more. After all, the years 45 to 60 seem the prime demographic for a 370Z, not a work/play truck in a quasi-MPV form. There were four seats on board, three of which were expected to be folded and not in use most of the time. So why even include them? A simple “utility” jump seat, similar to that on a commercial jet, would have sufficed.
And finally, though not the Nissan’s fault, the Bevel compared poorly with another concept revealed at the NAIAS that year, the Ford Airstream (profiled last week). The Airstream was a streamlined silver bullet with a screaming red interior and modern day lava lamp in the interior. The Airstream promised excitement and traveling adventure, the Bevel seemed to remind one of that endless list of household projects yet to be done …
Nevertheless, the Nissan Bevel, despite its shortcomings, was a promising concept and an interesting design. It took some real courage to compose a form that assembled so many disparate elements into such a simple overall design. The asymmetry and hidden lights added just enough mystery and interest to keep the eye moving and invite closer inspection. The interior seemed to combine just the right amount of science fiction combined with hardcore functionality.
And a decade on, the Bevel seems even more relevant as a concept. Specialized niche or genre vehicles are just a few years away as the technologies of “mass customization” mature. Also, augment the original Bevel’s technology with new and emerging technologies and you have a very advanced vehicle indeed. Subtract the seats, but add a 3D printer, an ensemble of assembly tools, modern navigation, and forthcoming AI and autonomous driving technologies, and you have a vehicle that could become a personal assistant – driving to an assignment, communicating with a smart vehicle or home, using on-board diagnostic technologies to assess a technical problem, fabricating a part and perhaps even install it.
What would we call such a vehicle? It would be more than a car, more than a truck, more than a tool or roving work shed, even though it would be all of these. Would we dare call it … a droid?