CAR interviews Shiro Nakamura: Infiniti's future (2009)

Published: 22 July 2009

CAR recently had a one-to-one with Shiro Nakamura, design director for Nissan and Infiniti. We were talking about the new Infiniti Essence GT concept car fresh from its Geneva motor show debut – and Nakamura san was talking us around his latest creation. Read the full transcript below, as we cover everything from future Infiniti design, how new cars can look ecologically friendly and the DNA of Japanese car design.

Let’s start with the timeline of the Infiniti Essence. When did you decide to do it?

‘We gave it the go ahead in fall 2007. We knew that Infiniti’s 20th anniversary was coming and we wanted to show our future commitment as a premium brand. Infiniti started 20 years ago – that’s quite  a long time. The first few years were not as successful as we originally hoped. But then the new management came in, Carlos Ghosn and myself arrived, and we made a decision to make Infiniti a real premium brand. And so in Infiniti’s second decade we’ve added the G coupe, the FX and the EX. We continuously added to the line-up in the second decade and at the same time the design strategy became much clearer. We set our design direction. It’s clearly expressed in FX, and also G coupe.’

And what will happen in Infiniti’s third decade?

‘We are adding even more to the line-up than we have today. Unfortunately, I cannot say which type of cars are coming, but we are definitely expanding from where we are today. Particularly in Europe, it’s difficult to win. And globally, we are not really at the level we want to be.’

So why launch the Essence?

‘The Essence shows our commitment as a premium brand. The reason we have designed a big coupé is because it’s a symbol to express luxury and premiumness. It’s an affluent car. Our top end is currently the M sedan. The new M sedan comes at the end of 2009. The Essence is just a concept, we are not sure we are ready to build that type of vehicle yet. But it does show our future commitment. A coupé gives more freedom to express design and emotion – much better than a sedan.’

Where was the Infiniti Essence designed? Talk us through the geography of it…

‘The car was built and made in Japan. Most Infiniti cars have been designed in Japan. We are open to inspirations and creative ideas from our overseas studios. The original hint of the idea came from our California studio – not a full-size just a scale model, just a pure intention. After that we did the full-size model in Japan and the interior. But other hints of it came from our London studio.’

And remind me where the design base is in Japan

‘We are based in Atsugi, 50km out of Tokyo. But we always work as a global team.’

I love the details of the Essence. I was there when the covers came off in Geneva and I was impressed by how the grille was incorporated into the front of the car. Many grilles are stuck on as an afterthought – here it’s integral. And that kinked C-pillar is very distinctive!

‘The front end structure of the lamps and grille will influence future models. We want to translate the face into production. The C-pillar graphic is unique and we want that for future products too. The current production car programmes we are working on are definitely being influenced by the Essence.’

So how many cars are you working on at the moment? Give us some idea of the scale of work underway on future Infinitis

‘At Infiniti we don’t have too many models on the go. One is almost finished, and we have two projects already finished waiting to come on the market – the M and one other. Then we have two other projects. Or maybe two plus one! But you know how it is in the car industry – you have three concepts, but they won’t all  be produced in reality. Business-wise, it’s not feasible at the moment to launch everything all at once. But we normally have around three projects underway at one time.’

What else on the Essence could influence future production Infinitis?

‘The rear end – the shape of the rear end and the tail lamp shapes and the very tapered back end. At the front, note the shape of the grille and lamps and fenders. At the side, the window graphics and especially the C-pillar. Those are the three things you should look at closely on the Essence.’

The Infiniti Essence’s kinked C-pillar is certainly quite original. Are you sure the side window graphic will translate to other bodystyles as well?

‘Yes, I think so. It’s much easier on a coupé, we can control the side of the window much more easily. But even on a five-door we can do it. We are not working on exactly this shape, but we have a unique shape here we can use on production cars. We need to find a name for it!’

Yes. You need a catchline. BMW have the Hofmeister kink. This could be the Nakamura wobble! What is the concept car made from?

‘The car is carbonfibre. Most of it is made from carbonfibre. Normal glassfibre isn’t strong enough – this is light and strong.’

Some of our readers on CAR Online loved the colour. Is it paint or bare metalwork?

‘This is a very special paint. We are experimenting with this kind of colour. It’s almost like chrome. It’s not the first time we’ve used it, we have done a few other models with the same colour – it’s a specialist skill at the moment. We can’t yet do it on a production car. But the GT-R silver is a special paint too, three coats and a hand-worked finish. The Essence colour is a gorgeous colour.’

The Essence is a hybrid. From a design point of view, does the electrification of the car present you with new possibilities? This is a big sporting, powerful car, yet it’s also clean. Does design allow you to communicate this? Are the days of the aggressive sports car dwindling?

‘We are experimenting all the time, especially at the Tokyo motor show. Nissan does some very innovative concepts, looking at the new way we will be driving. We are not particularly trying to express greenness in this car. I’m not sure the customer who will buy a luxury performance car will want a green car image. We didn’t intentionally express a green message on the Essence’s design. A very premium, luxury car like this allows us to show a real authentic joy of driving.’

What about the interior?

‘It’s a really nice interior! It’s one of the best interiors of any Nissan or Infiniti show car. It’s very simple: not at all complicated and it’s very harmonised, the ambience is very friendly. Even though it’s high tech, the tech is hidden – the controls aren’t obvious and it’s not at all complicated. Very simple. It’s a new type of expression for us.’

That’s a good point. We’ve almost become accustomed to interiors with hundreds of buttons. It can be confusing. The Essence has no more than 15 buttons on the centre console. Are you working to reduce the clutter?

‘Yes. The gauges are simple too, the instrument pack looks more like a high-end watch.’

You have some asymmetric design inside, with different materials on either side of the cabin. Will the Essence interior influence production cars?

‘The driver side is more like a cockpit, the passenger side more comfortable. Sounds good, but I think it’s not easy to do in the real world. The overall structure can only be done in a two-door coupé, not a four door. It’s a very close environment in the Essence, very snug. Some of the materials could be seen in production cars. But don’t expect anything like this any time soon. The interior is more experimental than the exterior.’

Where does this leave Infiniti design in 2009? The brand is still young compared with the established German players. Will this car act as a milestone in Infiniti’s history? The world is changing rapidly at the moment. How are you going to tempt people out of their BMWs, Audis, Mercs and Jaguars?

‘Competing in Europe in the luxury segment is very difficult. It’s not easy to establish your own position when the German, British and Italian brands have strong, unique identities. But our products will always offer a more Japanese alternative. It won’t be easy to do it rapidly, we only started in 2008 in Europe. At the moment we want our cars to stand for Japanese luxury cars. What does that mean? We are inspired by traditional Japanese luxury – the idea of Adeyaka, or the generation of rich people and aristocrats who wore luxurious, elegant clothes. We aim to do something different. Think of the Nissan GT-R. It is nothing like a Porsche or Ferrari or Aston Martin, but it is an authentic performance car. And the Nissan Qazana will make production looking very much like the concept car. Future Nissans will bring challenging new ideas and innovative shapes to the marketplace. In Infiniti’s case we cannot ignore the authentic beauty of the cars in the executive segment. We are expressing something very different to the European offerings with some Japanese culture. We cannot make the cars too different from other European premium cars. The Essence is not very far from Aston Martin or Maserati, but that’s fine – we don’t want to move too far away from beautiful design. In some ways we will refine the look of the German, British and Italian brands. But as an overall concept – the mix of design, performance and technology – we will be very different.’

Ok, three closing questions. Which cars did you benchmark for the Essence project? It seems on a par with the BMW 6-series and Jaguar XK. Did you have cars in mind in the sporting GT marketplace?

‘To be honest, we didn’t have any specific car in mind. The Essence concept is based on our hybrid powertrain and the platform is rear-wheel drive. We may have the opportunity to use the four-wheel drive platform too. But we won’t go beyond M – the highest category for Infiniti’s range. If the Essence was a production car, we would benchmark it against the 6-series or XK or whatever, but it is a pure concept car. We just wanted something high end, a luxury two-seater gran turismo.’

If our readers see the car at a motor show, what would you recommend they spend most time looking at?

‘The interior and the volumes and mass of the car and the sculptured shape. And we have special luggage created by Louis Vuitton – it’s a mock-up. This collaboration is a pure creative collaboration, our designers worked together.’

I see you’ve monogrammed the suitcases. I was trying to work out what SN stands for. It’s your initials!

‘It had to be somebody’s name... Louis Vuitton says it’s a tradition. They normally put the owner’s initials on the luggage.’

At least you won’t lose them at Narita airport when they come off the conveyor belt…

‘Ha-ha!’ [Chortles in Shiro’s inimitable style]

Ok, the killer question. I understand this is a concept car, a way of communicating ideas. But if the Essence had a tremendous reception and the business conditions were right, is there space for an Essence in Inifinti’s line-up? You’re looking to expand the range. Many of your premium competitors have coupés of this size and nature… What are its prospects of going on sale one day?

‘We believe in it. There is a recession going on like you see once every 100 years, but times will improve. The economy will come back. Globally the world is changing fast. We are expecting more eco cars and we believe heavily in electric vehicles which we’re launching next year. But as for Essence? You’ll have to wait and see.’

>> Rate the chances of future Infiniti design by clicking 'Add your comment' belowOk, three closing questions. Which cars did you benchmark for the Essence project? It seems on a par with the BMW 6-series and Jaguar XK. Did you have cars in mind in the sporting GT marketplace?

‘To be honest, we didn’t have any specific car in mind. The Essence concept is based on our hybrid powertrain and the platform is rear-wheel drive. We may have the opportunity to use the four-wheel drive platform too. But we won’t go beyond M – the highest category for Infiniti’s range. If the Essence was a production car, we would benchmark it against the 6-series or XK or whatever, but it is a pure concept car. We just wanted something high end, a luxury two-seater gran turismo.’

If our readers see the car at a motor show, what would you recommend they spend most time looking at?

‘The interior and the volumes and mass of the car and the sculptured shape. And we have special luggage created by Louis Vuitton – it’s a mock-up. This collaboration is a pure creative collaboration, our designers worked together.’

I see you’ve monogrammed the suitcases. I was trying to work out what SN stands for. It’s your initials!

‘It had to be somebody’s name... Louis Vuitton says it’s a tradition. They normally put the owner’s initials on the luggage.’

At least you won’t lose them at Narita airport when they come off the conveyor belt…

‘Ha-ha!’ [Chortles in Shiro’s inimitable style]

Ok, the killer question. I understand this is a concept car, a way of communicating ideas. But if the Essence had a tremendous reception and the business conditions were right, is there space for an Essence in Inifinti’s line-up? You’re looking to expand the range. Many of your premium competitors have coupés of this size and nature… What are its prospects of going on sale one day?

‘We believe in it. There is a recession going on like you see once every 100 years, but times will improve. The economy will come back. Globally the world is changing fast. We are expecting more eco cars and we believe heavily in electric vehicles which we’re launching next year. But as for Essence? You’ll have to wait and see.’

>> Rate the chances of future Infiniti design by clicking 'Add your comment' below

By Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet

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