Caroline Kidd on Japanese car design

Lost for words

I was driving a Honda Civic a while back and when I would ask friends and family what they thought of it, there would be silence and a lot of squinting and pacing around the car. While they tried to find the right words to describe the Civic, I would help them out and say, “It’s very Japanese” – hoping in some way to aid their confusion.

That seemed to make them happy. They would shrug their shoulders and nod in agreement, “Yes that must be it” – but all the while thinking “I’m not sure if I like that” – still too polite and confused by the Honda’s unusual styling to think of a better way to describe it.

Futuristic design not always received well

Japanese cars are known for many things but style is not usually one of them – at least not the sort of sexy and seductive style that might spring to mind when you think of an Italian or French car, or the effortless class of a German saloon.

Japanese cars are often quite futuristic in their design with a touch of playfulness about them. But they are not always received well in Europe. Bland is a word often fired at staples from the likes of Toyota and Nissan that reach here, like the Corolla, Auris or Micra.

The fine line between sporty and brash

In the luxury and performance end of the market, the Japanese carmakers don’t seem to be able to replicate the stoic but classy design that German carmakers do so well. The Japanese don’t seem to have got the memo that said when we say we want sporty, we don’t mean sporty brash.

Think Honda Civic Type R vs Volkswagen Golf R. Both after the same market but polar opposites in terms of styling. The Toyota GT86 is a great car but we all know there are far prettier sports coupés.

Promising future

Yet aside from a few questionable new cars there is a glimmer of hope. At the Geneva Motor Show 2015, there was plenty of exciting new design from Japan: the Nissan Sway Concept, Honda HR-V, Honda NSX, Mazda CX-3, Mazda MX-5, Infiniti QX30 and the P75 Cipher from Phiaro, an independent Japanese design house.

And you don’t have to look at new cars and concepts to see that the tide is turning in the right direction.

In recent years, Lexus have totally overhauled their corporate face with the integration of the spindle grille. While it has its critics, you have to admire them for going for something so dramatic. You won’t find design like this in most of the other luxury brands.

I love the Lexus spindle grille idea but I’m not sure if I’m fully sold on the new NX and RC F. Still I have seen quite a few CTs lately and I always glance back for another look (not just to see if Kylie Minogue is behind the wheel).

European design influence

In recent years, brands like Nissan, Toyota and Mazda have turned to their design studios in Europe to research the European aesthetic and produce cars that have the “emotional appeal” that we Europeans love. Cars like the new Nissan Qashqai are a great example of this working to great effect. The Nissan 370Z is one of my favourite cars of all time and look at that great design – a Japanese Audi TT.

Mazda has a very handsome collection of models now too that will be strengthened by the arrival of the CX-3 and MX-5. They call it KODO, I just call it sexy. Even on a Mazda 2.

Toyotas are really popular on our roads – the Yaris, Corolla and Avensis are big favourites with Irish motorists. When the new Auris came out I totally thought “Yeah I like that, it is different”. And again the words “It’s very Japanese” sprung to mind.

“It’s very Japanese”

That’s not an insult. European design influences aside, I want my Japanese car to remind me of where it came from. There is something a little bit exotic about a product from a far off place that most of us have never or will never visit. Even if it’s a five door hatchback called Auris.

It’s a challenge for the likes of Nissan, Toyota et al. not to be eclipsed by the advances of stylish new Korean rivals and native European competitors.

Playing on indigenous strengths and cultural influences while heeding European sensibilities is the way forward for Japanese car design.

Caroline Kidd