In late summer of 2010, Mazda gathered journalists to a private event in Milan. Revealed there was a new sports coupe, the Shinari, and a new design language, Kodo. Both were a dramatic departure from Mazda’s previous concepts, which had championed the Nagare design language.
The Nagare language, first introduced in 2006, was developed by Franz von Holzhausen and Laurens van der Acker. It featured streamlined forms with lots of lines and textures. There were also innovative explorations of packaging as seen in the Nagare, the Ryuga, and the ill-fated Furai racing car.
But with the departure of von Holzhausen for Tesla and van der Acker for Renault, Mazda stepped back and re-assessed their design philosophy.
New design director Ikuo Maeda and his team discussed a new purer design aesthetic which was more Japanese in character, placing a marker of unique cultural and aesthetic distinction, even in a brand with great global aspirations.
The Shinari emerged from these explorations – a new coupé design that was sleek and curvaceous, but with fewer character lines and creases, and a less dramatic mask. The symbolism of the Italian location for the reveal was lost on no one, as the Shinari had both Italian and Japanese design cues.
The name Shinari, as Mazda explained, was a Japanese term that “describes the powerful yet supple appearance of great resilient force when objects of high tensile strength, such as steel or bamboo, are twisted or bent. It also refers to the appearance of a person or animal as it flexes its body in preparation for a fast movement, and it is these images that form the basis for the name of this concept car.”
The Shinari was a four-door, four-seat sports coupé that straddled the C and D classes in dimensions and massing. It had a cab-rearward architecture, with a long hood and short trunk. The architecture emphasised the rear haunches, as if the car were ready to spring forward. The sculpted nose character lines running across the front fenders and across the beltline also indicated motion and speed, without resorting to the many windblown lines of the Nagare concepts.
The front mask, so dramatic in the Nagare concepts, was simpler, but equally dramatic, on the Shinari. The Mazda grille remained prominent, but with a simplified composition of blades extending out to the headlights
The interior of the Shinari was described as the “ultimate athletic space”. The driver’s seat was isolated in a cockpit-type interior configuration with the instrument panel sweeping down the center stake to separate driver and the passenger environments. The driver could configure instrumentation and controls in several settings: Business, Pleasure, and Sport.
The passenger compartment with its glazed roof had a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape and with its simple, uncluttered detailing felt like a much larger car.
At the same time the Shinari design was being developed, Mazda engineers were developing the SkyActiv engine and drivetrain. Maeda watched the passion and expertise of those who were developing this innovative drivetrain and was inspired by it. It would influence the design of the Shinari, and the Kodo design language itself.
As Maeda would later explain: “I was deeply impressed by our engineers’ unwavering commitment to the technology. I said to myself, well, if the engineers are innovating technologies, design must exceed the technological innovation and make our cars look absolutely sensational. That’s how we created the Shinari. The car was a message to the world that at Mazda, we make cars that we think are an ideal by getting our technology and design in perfect sync.”
Just as interesting as the Shinari concept was the dramatic turn from the Nagare to the Kodo design language. A casual glance at the Shinari suggests an evolution of Nagare, rather than a totally new expression. The natural curves and organic surfacing are still there, just more subtle and refined.
It might be interpreted as more mature, more developed from the earlier, expressive Nagare forms – but Kodo is built on a different aesthetic and philosophical foundation to Nagare. Both emphasise natural curves and tension, but Kodo works towards simplicity and the power of surfacing rather than dramatic windswept forms, layered lines, and details.
And also, as Maeda explained, “In our work to further evolve the expression of motion, Mazda Design has focused on the strength, beauty and tension found in the instantaneous movement seen in animals. This motion that is so full of vitality that it stirs the emotions of those who see it. We have named it ‘Kodo – Soul of Motion’, and our aim is to express movement with forceful vitality and speed as the design theme for Mazda’s upcoming models.”
“Complete and intricately calculated beauty has a noble dignity. In form creation, which is the most exhaustive part of the design process, a streamlined shape is so perfect that the shape imparts tension, and that to me expresses Japanese aesthetic sensibilities. Prioritizing the many elements and getting them all to generate a form that has a pure essence can create a stronger, more permanent impression. We call it ‘beauty through purity’. Ordering everything to singular purity describes our ideal form.”
The Kodo design language has been central to Mazda’s design philosophy for almost a decade now. It informs the design of their concept cars, and, increasingly, their production ones as well.
As for the Shinari, its spiritual successor is the Mazda Vision Coupé of 2017. Again, a four-door sports coupé, the Vision Coupé is a new generation of Kodo design, a further step towards “a pure essence”.
Looking back, the Nagare era seems a lot more than a decade past. But Nagare produced some excellent concepts and raised Mazda’s design profile considerably. However, the Kodo design language has brought Mazda into a totally new realm. It may never reach the absolute of “pure essence”, but we would happily settle for the sublime, and that seems very close indeed.