When you see automobile advertising, it predictably relates to speed, performance, luxury, precision, functionality, or fun. Funny works. Inspiration also works. Tag lines like Toyota's "Let's Go Places," and Chevrolet's "Find New Roads" capture how you will feel in the car. Or they project how wonderful the car is, like BMW's "The Ultimate Driving Machine," and Mercedes-Benz's "Unlike Any Other."
One auto company's tag line leaves the door open to a more abstract interpretation: Mazda's Zoom-Zoom. It's been around for so many years that Mazda uses it internally as a descriptor. If a sketch isn't working at the design studio or a new engineering idea isn't quite right, people will say, "It doesn't have enough zoom-zoom." And while Mazda's signs of maturity include a change in its tagline to "Driving Matters," zoom-zoom isn't going away. It resides just below "Driving Matters" and more importantly, in the hearts of everyone at Mazda.
But when we talk cars, abstractions are difficult. Car companies sell the benefits of the finished product highlighting its unique sheet metal and powertrains, convenience and comfort, utility and fuel economy. However, a vehicle's realization starts back at HQ with input from every department.
Visiting many design studios over my many years of automotive reporting, I've seen designers point to pages ripped from fashion and home magazines as inspiration. This never rang true for me, for I always suspected those pages are tacked to bulletin boards hours before the studios open to reporters.
I spoke at length with the Julien Montousse, design director for Mazda North American Operations. Montousse's approach to design is rooted in heightened emotional experiences. "It is a very different way of looking at the design process," says Montousse.
When asked how to get big emotion out of a design team that works for a corporation, Montousse replied, "Our team is out before dawn surfing the Pacific waves; it's pitch black. Some of our Japanese colleagues don't even know how to swim. You survive. The day begins with a feeling of exhilaration. We go to the climbing wall for the same reason. You start the day with adrenaline. We have a challenger attitude; we're never going to give up. We form a strong bond. And we value the perfection of skills."
Montousse says his personal story has made him even more emotionally aware. After spending six years working at Mazda's headquarters in Hiroshima, living a very solitary existence that involved work and more work, he met his now wife, Mayra. They have a new baby. A novel he read, "A Tale for the Time Being," highlighted how the Japanese culture's emphasis on spiritual and cultural life could clash with the American idea of living for the moment. As life changed around him, he changed with it. It is clear when listening to Montousse, that he is a person who has internalized his life changes; he vibrates with a sense of exhilaration.
All of his personal details are meant to shine a light on what he imparts to his design staff. Out of 1,000 sketches the studio produces, they select 10. Then, only one remains. All of the energy is put towards one sketch that eventually defines the shape of the car.
Japanese artisans believe that when they put hours and hours of handwork into an object, the finished product retains all that energy. "We use a hand-made approach. We make a clay of some part of the car and carry it around the company to different departments to get reactions."
If indeed, Mazda's design process erupts out of a wetsuit at dawn, it has accomplished what the company set out to do. Look at a Mazda and you see a reflection of your environment. It is a study of brilliant yellow leaves in the fall, or the beach in the summer. And that reflection of your environment is what Mazda is after. "We're not after a fashionable statement. Our approach is to seduce the eyes using a reflection-based surfacing that does not have hard edges. It's a reflection of light and dark," says Montousse.
All of this may seem a bit too personal, too over-the-top, and too abstract until you walk around the MX-5 Miata, the Mazda6, and even their largest crossover, the CX-9. Then it begins to make sense. And, Mazda isn't just a pretty face. Its SkyActiv technologies result in an engaging, fuel efficient driver's vehicle. That, too, is a story to be told.
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Kate has written for magazines and newspapers for over 20 years. She has written for More, Edmunds.com, ForbesAutos.com, Houston Chronicle, Motion, Chief Executive, The New York Daily News, The New York Sun, and Autobytel.com. Her column, GirlDriver, USA is syndicated in seven newspapers in Upstate New York. Ms. McLeod is the author of Beetlemania, The Car That Captured the Hearts of Millions. She holds an MFA from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. and is also a playwright. She is former First Vice President of the International Motor Press Association and a member of both The Authors and Dramatists Guilds.
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