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Designing cars in China: Can Nissan give "daqi" global appeal?

Nissan Motor Co's logo is pictured at the company headquarters in Yokohama, south of Tokyo December 5, 2012. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao
Nissan Motor Co's logo is pictured at the company headquarters in Yokohama, south of Tokyo December 5, 2012. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

By Norihiko Shirouzu

BEIJING (Reuters) - Nissan Motor Co. plans to start selling more China-inspired cars around the world, its design chiefs said, a nod to the growing importance of China's auto market and the country's up-and-coming design talent.

Staff at the Japanese automaker's new design center in Beijing will attempt to export homegrown concepts like "daqi" - the hard-to-define sense of style and road "presence" that Chinese buyers look for in a vehicle.

It's quite a shift from the days when the focus of global auto companies in China was solely on producing vehicles aimed at the domestic market, while Chinese car makers were often accused of simply copying foreign designs.

"Nissan Design China isn't for China," Nissan's global design chief Shiro Nakamura said this week, showing off a newly completed studio opened in Beijing earlier this year.

Its task, Nakamura said, is to become an incubator of styling ideas that help expand the "bandwidth" of Nissan's design expressions and "come up with China-inspired products that have a global appeal".

Nakamura said Nissan is two years away from launching a global car, styled primarily by the mostly Chinese staff at its Beijing studio, that will be sold in North America and Europe as well as Asia.

"We want our China studio to expand the bandwidth of design expressions," with which Nissan tries to differentiate itself as a global Japanese brand, he said. "If you do all the design in Japan, the depth and width of expressions tends to become narrow."

GLOBAL APPEAL

The styling concept used in that car, whose details Nakamura refused to discuss, beat out competing ideas from Nissan's studios in London, San Diego and Atsugi, near Tokyo, he said.

"We want to come up with 'daqi' that is rooted in Chinese consumers' aspirations, but with a global appeal," said Nissan's China design studio chief Taiji Toyota in an interview.

The concept of "daqi" - pronounced "dah-chee" - is widely discussed by carmakers competing for the Chinese consumer but hard to translate or define.

Some see it in fancy "bling-bling" cars that come with bigger, comfortable rear seats, climate control buttons and entertainment systems. Others define it as cars, however small, that people would be proud to show off to friends and relatives.

Using China, the world's biggest auto market since 2009, as a creative center for car-development is "only a natural progression" for global auto makers already investing heavily in engineering facilities in the country, said Yale Zhang, head of Shanghai-based consulting firm Automotive Foresight.

Indeed, the design of General Motors Co's Buick LaCrosse sedan, which sells in China and elsewhere, was a collaboration between the company's design studios in Warren, Michigan, and Shanghai.

"GM has been designing cars here, partially with contributions from other studios around the world, and selling them in and outside China over the past several years," Zhang said. "Volkswagen did with the Passat, and now Nissan. More companies are going to style and engineer global cars here."

EXPANDING CAPACITY

Nissan originally opened a China design studio in Beijing in 2011 at a separate site. Its workload grew quickly as China's importance as an auto market grew and it decided to move to a new location to beef up its capacity.

According to Nissan, the new studio has five times the capacity of the previous site, which had just one design bench, putting it on a par with its studios in London and San Diego.

Nissan executives said the new design center has a staff of about 30, a third of whom are designers. Most of the studio staff are either Chinese nationals or of Chinese origin.

China's auto industry was underdeveloped until the late 1990s, and many homegrown auto makers copied foreign designs instead of nurturing designers of their own.

That began changing when the country's market started growing rapidly over the past decade-and-a-half, with many Chinese designers attending foreign design schools, some of whom are now returning home.

Nissan previously operated a small design office in Shanghai, mainly charged with monitoring design trends in China, but closed the office in 2010.

Before settling on Beijing to open a full-fledged studio, Nissan considered other cities, which included Shanghai, Dalian, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

One reason Nissan picked Beijing, Nissan's global design chief Nakamura said in 2011, was because China's capital has only a small number of competing studios and could operate in a "much calmer environment where there isn't much poaching of talent by different design studios". Most global players have set up studios in Shanghai.

Another key factor was the existence of two relatively competitive design schools at Tsinghua University and the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, according to Nakamura.

(Editing by Alex Richardson)

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