Beauty that’s more than skin deep

Kota Beppu
Program Manager,
Product Division
Mazda Motor Corporation

A trip last month to Mazda’s home proving ground in Mine, an hour’s coach ride from Fukuoka City in Japan, brought me face to face with no less than the product manager of the all-new 2020 Mazda3.
Mazda has been creating cars with some of the most evocative designs and spirited performance in automobiledom, and both the current and soon-to-be-launched Mazda3 models are among the Hiroshima-based brand’s styling and dynamic leaders.
Which is why the opportunity to pick the brains of its creator was a huge treat. Here are a few insights from Kota Beppu, program manager of the all-new Mazda3.

Q: How did you get started in product development?
I studied accounting in school, so I wanted to find a job in finance. But as I was going through my job search, I gradually started feeling uncomfortable, and then something happened that made me change direction. I’ve always liked talking to people, making them happy and dazzling them, and then along came an album that reminded me of that fact.
It was the last album by a big rock band. The first track had a title referring to the band members’ bond with each other. At the time there was a lot of friction between them and they were thinking about breaking up. While the other members wanted to quit the band, the leader was desperately trying to keep them together. In that song, the other members are telling the leader that they should break up, and at the end he finally agrees and his feelings about it change.
I was a university student at the time, and when I made this realization, I figured the leader of the band must have had it the toughest. He was really trying to keep the band together, whose members had huge success that earned them worldwide attention, but in the end he had to give up. That’s the idea they’re expressing with their music. When I first listened to that album, it moved me to tears.
At that time, I felt I wish I could send a message to people through a product, change something for them and enrich their lives, if only just a little. It also made me think about where I’d started, with a desire to do some kind of work where I send a message. Ever since I joined Mazda, more than just making cars, I’ve had this desire to affect people emotionally and change lives with the passion and the ideas we put into our products. That’s where things started for me.

Q: Explain the concept of the all-new Mazda3 as “an object of universal desire.”
The thing that spawned this concept was when I heard a customer say in an interview that nobody actually wants to drive a C-segment (compact sedan) car, because if they have the money, they’d choose a luxury car or an SUV instead. I had to do something about that. I thought the new Mazda3 cannot be a car people select as a compromise. I think of a car as something that’s lots of fun, expands the range of things you can do and even influences how you think. That’s why I want to make a person’s first encounter with a car awesome, and that led to the concept of “an object of universal desire.”

Q: Tell us about your idea of the target customer for the hatchback.
To put it simply, people who lead lives where they’re free to follow their desires and impulses. They question the world’s conventional wisdom and stereotypes. They ask, “Is that really true?” or “Is that really important?” Then they compare those ideas to how they feel, and if they match then they’ll follow along, but if they can’t accept then they’ll do what they think is right. Those kinds of people are the target for the hatchback.

Q: What kind of value did you infuse the hatchback with?

There are two major things. One is that I want owners to be more impulsive. Then, I want those urges created by their encounter with this new Mazda to then move them to action. Arousing those desires is by design, so to speak.
First, I talked with the designers about how I wanted to make a sensuous rear view, a back side that makes your heart skip a beat. To make that happen, I figured we should completely abandon the conventional rules.
About the second value, translating impulse into action, my goal is for the car to move exactly as the driver intends. Mazda currently develops cars based on a human-centric approach. For example, when there’s a plastic bottle of water in front of you and you pick it up to take a drink, your brain estimates how to make the necessary movements. It guesses where your hand should be, where the bottle is, around how heavy it is, then tells your hand how to move. Based on the results of these calculations, the brain predicts the distance to move and how much force to apply.
Likewise, when we drive a car under normal conditions, it often doesn’t move as predicted. Many factors affect the object being controlled. There aren’t many cars that will turn precisely as you imagine when you turn the steering wheel. If we were going to get drivers to translate their true thoughts to action, I decided to set a goal of making a car that will move exactly as commanded. That’s a value I felt we needed not just for the hatchback, but for all the new Mazda3 models, including the sedan.

The 2020 Mazda3 on the track

Q: Can you explain what you imagine the target for the sedan is like?
The customer I defined for the sedan is a person who works at a company and wants to succeed on their strengths within society or a large organization. But I thought that working within that frame can overwhelm an individual, so the only two options available are to rebel and withdraw from society, or to follow along with the organization.
However, when we interviewed a woman living in America, I felt that she was trying to create a third option. It began one day when she suddenly commented that “the city has no color.” She said, “I want to see real colors,” so on her days off she goes diving or climbs mountains. When I wondered what she meant by “real colors,” I thought that perhaps she was referring to the instinctive yearnings we can’t discard, even as we do the practical things society requires of us. I felt that maybe she goes to see nature to take back that primitive self.

Q: Tell us about the value you gave to the sedan.
I think of the sedan as something that comes from respect for things like tradition, conventional wisdom and rules. For the previous Mazda3 generation we gave the sedan a coupe-like look. It’s cool, but it doesn’t follow the norms of a sedan. It’s like there’s a dress code requiring a jacket and necktie, but you come without the tie. That’s how the previous Mazda3 sedan went against the rules, and we regretted that. Survey results produced data that the design wasn’t supported by the prevailing trends in the sedan market.
So what are the rules for a sedan? We thought about that, and our answer was the three-box design. That shape, with clear separation between the cabin and trunk, is the rule. So long as you follow that rule, then go ahead and dress it up in pretty ways that infuse the energy and inspiration to keep you going and prevent yourself from getting stuck in a rut. That’s the biggest value we’ve brought to the new sedan.

Q: Is that what you mean by “classy sedan”?
Yes, that’s right. When you try and do something different from the norm, the process becomes more difficult. If you don’t give it proper thought, you’re just decorating an existing design. For example, with a business bag it’s easy to just change the color to red or add some ornamentation. But that doesn’t show respect for the norms. That’s the thing that I think makes designing a sedan the most challenging. So what we did was to thoroughly focus on the proportions rather than the ornamentation. We wanted to make a sedan that looks the coolest in its bare form, that makes you think it’s a beautiful car at first glance even without ornamentation. That’s where we put the most effort and struggled the hardest in designing the sedan. It’s why we did things like lowering the hood’s height by 20mm and increasing the overall length to get the ideal proportions. We didn’t really concentrate on doing something novel, but just creating something beautiful while adhering to the format.

Q: How would you like a driver’s first encounter with the new Mazda3 to go?

The ideal in my mind would be love at first sight. When they walk around the corner on the street, a Mazda3 happens to catch their eye. That’s the kind of first-time encounter I want. If I ever hear from a person who’s never been interested in cars before, that they came upon the new Mazda3, liked it right away and ended up buying one, I’ll be happy to the bottom of my heart that I became a program manager.

I’ll speak honestly and tell you that actually, I want people who aren’t interested in cars to drive the new Mazda3 more than I want car enthusiasts to. I hope we have a whole lot of people who aren’t into cars or who feel like learning about them is a chore to come across the new Mazda3, and then think that this car could make their life more fun or that they could do something different with this vehicle.

I don’t think of the new Mazda3’s rivals as other cars. I want it to beat out night pool parties. I hope young people start choosing night drives over night pool parties. I’d rather they take a drive than spend money going out to eat the latest trending sweets.

If that happens, then I’ll feel I’ve done my job as program manager. That’s what I dream about.

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