Shiro Nakamura is widely considered to be one of the world’s foremost car designers. The senior vice president and chief creative officer of design, brand management for Nissan, started his career with General Motors in the 70s and Isuzu in the 80s and 90s where he was involved in the groundbreaking Isuzu Vehicross production car which prefaced the incredibly successful – and still expanding –small 4×4 soft-roader market segment. Guy Bird recently caught up with him.

Headhunted by Nissan in 1999, Nakamura has since launched an onslaught of concepts and production cars as part of Carlos Ghosn’s ‘Nissan Revival Plan’ including the Chappo, Cube, Jikoo, Effis, 350Z, Murano, Crossbow and second generation Micra as well as the FX45 and the EX – both for Nissan’s luxury brand Infiniti.

just-auto caught up with him in Geneva and Tokyo to get the latest on his plans for defining Infiniti, the secrets of the next (global) Nissan Cube and the significance of his latest Tokyo concepts.

j-a: Nissan had one of the largest and most diverse displays at the 2007 Tokyo motor show with four global concept unveils and a certain supercar too. How do they all fit into your design vision?

At Nissan we have two design visions that can be best summed up by the GTR production supercar and the Pivo2 concept. One is muscular and all about performance, the other cute and all about commuting. Both are innovative, unique, challenging and contain a human element. The Roundbox [a cross between a Cube and a 350Z], NV200 [a van with a sliding rear pod] and Intima [an upmarket coupe-like saloon with suicide doors] concepts shown at the Tokyo show fit somewhere in between. 

j-a: How do you see global car design in late 2007?

I think there may be little more to go in this current phase of ‘busy’ designs [as personified by BMW]. But recently, I really like that there has not been one clear trend in car design. In 1980 there used to be one direction – the global car – with round and aerodynamic shapes, [e.g. the Ford Sierra]. Before it was square [the VW Golf MkI and Fiat Panda], but now it’s more individual.

j-a: I hear the next-generation Cube is coming to Europe?

The next generation is probably coming to Europe in a couple of years – it’s more friendly. Eco-friendly people don’t want to drive fast. They want to relax in the car and the Cube is a perfect example of that. We want to maintain the diversity of this value of the car. It’s a unique opportunity as it used to be that the sportscar was the only way to go. The Cube has a very nice proportion; it’s not just a box. I always say the Cube is not very square. From a plan view the Cube is very round.

j-a: Is a hybrid or full-electric Cube possible too?

There could be, it could be a very nice car for full electric or hybrid, but we still don’t know yet. Electric-only power plants are more likely as Nissan has advanced technology in this area already. We launched the Hyper Mini two-seater in 2000. Production has now stopped but people like the Government and councils still use it. Environmental pressure is giving us an opportunity for design.

j-a: Is Nissan established as a brand in design terms yet?

Establishing a brand is not easy thing to do particularly for newcomers. BMW and Alfa Romeo have already done this, with long histories. Nissan doesn’t have this, so we are still struggling. We don’t think we are established yet. We have just started, we our challengers. Creating a brand is really important in the car industry. Without a brand it is very difficult to survive. I think European volume players are having difficulties in this area.

j-a: Nissan has a lot of gaps in its range too? How will they be plugged?

Our C-segment offering is not as strong as it should be – with the exception of the Qashqai – but we will re-enter the C- and D-segment hatchback sectors but with a unique proposition in time.

j-a: How will you differentiate the Nissan and Infiniti brands?

We want Infiniti to be advanced and contemporary. All cars are rear-wheel drive, authentic sports sedans, quite conservatively designed sportscars, but where the cars themselves are not conservative. The Infiniti G35 is more classic, yet still modern.

On the other hand, Nissan is basically four-wheel drive, off-road, SUV, while its passenger cars are all front-wheel drive. What we are looking for is a balance. Shape-wise the current Micra or Note shows the direction we are going. But we want to make it look more modern looking.

Infiniti as you know is coming to Europe – it has been just a US regional brand up to now – and as I manage both Nissan and Infiniti, for us a big issue is how to manage the different brands. It’s hard to establish a premium brand very quickly. Next Geneva we will show something from Infiniti.

j-a: What about the Nissan GTR? Will it become an Infiniti over time?

I think GTR is stand-alone. It is almost its own brand. It has it’s own history and character so we don’t want to dilute that. But yes, an Infiniti spin-off product using the GT-R powertrain is logical. No studies have been done yet.

j-a: How is non-car design influencing you?

The car is one of the parts of your life. Car interiors used only to be influenced by super sportscars but now that is just one direction – like the GTR you have just seen. The Cube’s interior design is more influenced by architecture and the living room, for relaxing. It’s been done before with old US designs – I remember a car from Chrysler that had a pull-out record player in it – but since the late 1960s that approach has largely been abandoned.

It used to be that for many people, particularly young people in Europe I think, that the car was the centre of their life. In Japan the car is only one part of life. So we have sofas and lighting that influence us now.