DESIGN: Nissan VP reveals challenges of designing with DNA

22_Nissan Sentra 2016 Taro Ueda

We recently had the chance to glimpse into the the mind of someone who spends every day thinking and making decisions about the cars we buy, drive, and love. Taro Ueda is Vice-President of Design at Nissan Design America, the automaker’s studio in southern California, and he and his team were actually able to make the 2016 Sentra look good.

04-7613_Nissan Sentra 2016

We were invited to the launch of the facelifted seventh-generation Sentra. Ueda-san broke out the painter’s tape to illustrate how the new hood, V-motion grille and boomerang headlights work together to make the Sentra’s front end something more than just a amalgam of random shapes and lines.

It’s hard to believe, but the Nissan Sentra has been around for 34 years. In fact, it was the first model to be sold as a Nissan after the Datsun name was dropped in the US. As such, it was a transformational model, also marking the generation in which the beloved Sunny was changed from a rear-wheel-drive TS Cup racing phenom into a front-wheel-drive grocery getter. But hey, it was solid transportation, and even got 42 miles per gallon — in 1982!

The Sentra was the name given to the USDM versions of the Sunny. For most of its life, it has been a car so uninspiring that comedians can’t even make “Sentra” the punchline of jokes about vehicular destitution because it lacks the name recognition of a Honda Civic. It wasn’t a bad car per se. Actually, it was a very good car for people, perhaps, who don’t care much about cars.

Nissan Sentra generations

That’s not to say there weren’t flashes of brilliance in its long lineage. Remember the 1991 Sentra SE-R? It was one of the best compact sport sedans ever made, a spiritual successor to the Datsun 510. That entire generation proved so good that it is still, at this very moment, being built and sold as new right here in North America.

Ueda-san is an enthusiast. He owned an NA Roadster in Japan — a photo of which he still keeps on his phone — and also worked on beloved 1980s Hondas before moving to Nissan. However, there are forces far greater than any one enthusiast, even one at a major car company, can do about prevailing trends in the broader car-buying world. We learned a lot.

JNC: A lot of enthusiasts feel that right now there aren’t cars available for them, especially on the low end of the market. What type of platform could be used to create a car that had a following with youth and enthusiasts?

Taro Ueda: Everybody is looking for more affordable cars today. That means something smaller, with a body type that is more flexible with lots of possibilities.

What would be the ideal layout and design for a practical car that can have a potentially large following from performance enthusiasts and regular drivers?

That’s a great question. The IDx or 510 provides a hint. It’s not just a normal sedan, but it has a lightweight, sporty look. It has two rear seats. Maybe a more practical, flexible car platform, going back to a very simple sedan.

But right now, crossovers are more popular than sedans.

People are driving cars to enhance their lifestyle, but if you have a heavy load at the back it’s not good for the driving experience. The sedan is a great balance. If we don’t think about having so much utility in the car, we can do this. If f you have a sedan, you can expand the body to anything you want, like a wagon or SUV.

It’s very difficult to have a unique platform today.

Yes, Toyota shares with Subaru, Mazda shares with Fiat. With all the regulations out there, it can be very challenging.

What segment can be created to link traditional Nissan enthusiasts to a new demographic?

That’s a good question. We always think of the early days of Nissan, when it was under the name of Datsun, when our cars were smaller and very sleek, with front-engined, rear-wheel-drive platforms. So if Nissan had such a traditional platform, we would have the flexibility to make more interesting cars for the people.

Do you feel that the Sentra has that potential?

Yeah, but the Sentra itself is getting big now! I would say a bit more compact car would be one that has a much more driver-machine feeling. Each time a car changes, it gets bigger and bigger. For safety. For roominess. There’s a lot of criteria that we have to work on. But if we could start over again, to show our excitement, to say that this is the Nissan younger customers are looking for, it should be a very unique platform.

Do you think RWD and manual transmissions are still viable for inexpensive models, or are these only practical for low-volume, expensive cars?

When I had an original Mazda Roadster in Japan when I was young, it really felt like a comeback to the original fun-ness of driving. Manual shifting and RWD gives you the feeling of a completely different car, a direct driving feel that you never forget. But younger drivers, they may have never felt that before. People who long for that feeling are older, and can buy a Z or GT-R. How we share that experience to younger customers will be very interesting and very important to maintaining our long history and brand DNA.

Can you give us a hint regarding the design language of the next Z or GT-R? Is something like the Miata or FR-S being considered?

[Laughs]. This is not the company’s thinking — this is just my thinking — but today’s sports cars from Nissan are a little big bigger and a little bit massive. It’s good for having a high-performance look, but typically a next-generation sports car should look more lightweight and leaner. Simpler, beautiful surface treatments with more iconic proportions are very important. As cars get bigger, we have to add more surface and the cars look more massive, so how much we can go back to the original thinking will be very interesting when we redesign the next-generation sports car.

When, not if?

If [laughs].

Recently Nissan unveiled the GripZ concept and a lot of people on the internet got scared that the next Z would be a crossover. Do you think that’s the future of the Z?

I don’t think so, but I don’t know exactly. It all depends on people’s feedback, but we did not design the GripZ as the new Z. We took some themes from the original Z, but it was not intended as the Z. Nissan is always looking for new genres of vehicles, and the GripZ was used to do that, but it was not the Z.

Because crossovers are on track to surpass sedans in sales, do you think there will be a market for a sports crossover in the future?

I think the potential is very very high, especially with younger customers. When I was young, if you asked someone to draw a car, they’d draw a three-box sedan. But today, if you ask a teenager to draw your typical car, they’ll draw an SUV or something else.

Will you include more DNA in new car design?

Yes, it’s always a big discussion when we talk about global vehicles. We have everything from kei cars in Japan to the Titan in the US, as well as SUVs and GT-Rs. The variety of vehicles is so broad, how we tell people about Nissan DNA is the biggest challenge. Today we have the V-motion grille, boomerang headlamps, and floating roof. It’s not just two or three models. We are continuously working those design aspects into newer products. But implementing that idea that is another thing. People should understand that it’s the Nissan look, but how it’s executed depends on the character of the vehicle.

So that’s the new Nissan DNA. How can you also connect old Nissan DNA in terms of heritage and history?

It’s not a particular line or graphic or DLO, but more an overall execution of the body work. I’ve seen a lot of Japanese heritage cars [at the JCCS] in Long Beach. People really love them, and every car is done with high quality. Every car is lean and lightweight looking. How much can bring back that original Japanese type of bodywork? Most likely, it will be in surface management, the balance between the cabin and body and tires and fenders. We really need to consider what we have done before. With today’s regulations and technology it’s not easy to apply those ideas to future vehicles., but it’s really important for us to maintain the history of Nissan.

What is the state of car enthusiasm in Japan, and what car designs are they leaning towards now?

It’s almost the same as here. Everyone likes the Skylines, Zs. But there’s also the Be-1, Pao the K12 March, and second-generation Cube, which were all really well-received by the Japanese people. We understood that customers wanted to apply their cultures and lifestyles onto these cars. We’re always keeping in the back of our minds when the best time would be to come back with these types of cars in the Japanese market.

What do you think is a young person’s car today?

People are looking for a device-ish car. Everyone already has a device in their hand. How much do we want to integrate their gadget into the car will be very challenging because these areas are still very new. How new devices and car devices can be integrated into one device will be a very interesting aspect.

12-7629_Nissan Sentra 2016

So, the takeaway: with young drivers today, it’s not only about turning your car into a smartphone, but many of them have never even experienced the thrill of driving a car like the 510 or 240Z. If you’re 16 today and just getting your driver’s license, you were born in 2000, just about the time the era of enthusiast cars was ending.

That probably explains why Nissan packed the new Sentra full of of technology that has no right being in a typical budget compact. If you are into such things — and it’s unlikely that you are if you’re reading this — the new Sentra includes gadgets like forward emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and the ability to receive directions and invisible fence boundaries from your smartphone. There’s even a six-speed manual, which Nissan continues to offer despite the fact that the take rate is only 1.6 percent and it is only availbable on the $16,780 base model. 1.6 percent! Like we said, a great car for people who don’t care much about cars.

However, if there is a young driver in your life, consider getting them a 510, a Sentra SE-R, or something that will let them feel the thrill of driving. That’s the only way guys like Ueda-san will be able to create the cars he — and we — all want.

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18 Responses to DESIGN: Nissan VP reveals challenges of designing with DNA

  1. Tim says:

    An excellent example of how distanced the people calling the shots are from their target audience. Youth don’t want another device. They want their car to interact with their existing device. Bluetooth phone calls and music streaming, screen mirroring, some whiz-bang iPhone app that lets them unlock their doors via their phone and track their gas mileage. THAT’S the tech that youth want. They don’t want a new UI running on inferior hardware that’s outdated the day it comes out. Give them a bigger screen, hook it up to a rear view camera, and stop trying to make it do more. The smarter you try to make your car’s entertainment system, the dumber the result is.

    He’s right on point with surface management, though. My 16 year old sister hates modern cars with their high beltline, and she’s not even a car enthusiast. Sporty lines on cheap cars died in the 90s. It’s not like it’s impossible to make a car with a low beltline that passes modern safety tests. Put your side-impact beam at the top of the door instead of the middle. It makes the top of the door wider, which intrudes a bit into cabin space, but given how ridiculously wide modern vehicles are anyway, it should be relatively easy to work around that. You can also “fake” the look by rolling the body under the bottom of the vehicle instead of dropping the door all the way to the ground. I realize this means smaller rolling diameters for tires, but that’s actually a good thing! Wheel wells have become disproportionate to vehicle size and in some cases appear to be defining the overall vehicle dimensions.

    Designers appear to be doing what they can given the restrictions put on them, but modern cars look to be old cars sitting on top of an extra foot of vertical metal. It’s unnecessary. People are willing to buy cars with sportier seating positions – The 240Z had your butt basically on the floor. The 370Z has you sitting upright in a recliner. It’s ridiculous. So you’re not going to sell these new, sporty cars to 50-year olds. Realize that this is OKAY. If you don’t price it upmarket, don’t advertise it upmarket, and don’t try to sell it upmarket, the cheap sports car can sit where it belongs – as a fun first car for dad to buy his son for his 16th birthday. As a reward for getting your first job after college. As a spiritual successor to the cars made back when Nissan had a soul.

  2. Randy says:

    Here’s where I have a MAJOR disagreement:

    “People who long for that feeling are older, and can buy a Z or GT-R.”

    WOW, is that WRONG… That’s also a REALLY narrow marketing thought.

    They’re COMPLETELY discounting the person who has daily responsibilities, so has to have a multi-passenger vehicle. GT-R doesn’t count; back seat’s about useless for humans.

    Let’s take the 40-something person, he-or-she, who has to drive to work, shopping, etc. Let’s throw in the kid. Maybe 2 kids. Oh yeah – let’s not forget the significant other. They are NOT likely to be taking the 2-seater, or the 2+eh-seater to the wedding, funeral, visiting grandma, the pool, shopping, etc., and they can’t necessarily afford the $40,000+ Z, or the $100,000 GT-R in addition to the daily driver. Since EVERY single person I know has other responsibilities, and NONE has that kind of coin laying around, those are two specific cars that they are NOT going to buy.

    Now, a Sentra SE-R would be a nice alternative to the crossover/SUV/minivan for a sporting, yet economical vehicle.

    Let’s try this with a Versa (I prefer the sedan) also, and put on a tighter suspension for the SE/SE-R version. Same “tuning” parts for the Note. Would a turbo fit? Low-pressure one to keep it all controllable.


    1.) Look at Kia and Hyundai. (Boy does it feel weird to say “follow them.”) ANYWAY, Rio and Forte, and Accent and Elantra/GT have sticks available in at least a well-equipped base model. Veloster has it across the board.

    2.) Look at Mazda. Lotsa stick-models available. Just wish they’d bring more of them over to the U.S.

    3.) Look at Honda. Stick available in Civics AND ACCORDS.

    My still-favorite Japanese car: 1985 Mazda 626 LX. ~LX~. Not the base model; not the performance model, the LUXURY model. MANUAL transmission, with power windows and locks, better stereo, AND the power sunroof.

    Thirty-one years ago, this car was not only possible, but was relatively common (considering the size of Mazda in the U.S.).


    Seriously: I want to know.

    Who thought: “Let’s make a stick available, but ONLY in the base-of-base model,” or “Let’s make the stick available, but NOT have the sunroof/moonroof available with it.”

    As long as I am able to drive a stick, I won’t even look at something where I can’t get a stick shift. Period.

    Anybody else here consider themselves any amount of enthusiast?

  3. Jim Daniels says:

    Well at least her front looks OK. From the rear she has high hips and a flat butt. Not something that makes me say “I hate to see her leave but love to watch her go”. And the waste line looks Americanized and supersized having ate a lot of meals at Mc Donalds. Sorry Nissan, I am sure the new Sentra will be a reliable car as have the others, but Sentra’s have never been purchased for their looks. Add this one to a long line of grocery getters. If you are going to worry about cell phone interface and cars please keep it with your Sentra.

    Now, when you think of SEX and the beautiful curves of a woman, I want you to envision those amazing shapes for the next Z. Build a great looking Z based on those sensual thoughts. Make a great car first and foremost. Do not build a car around how it can adapt to the cellular world. Focus on what makes a great car a great car, looks, handling, reliability. The accessory’s are just that accessory’s.

    • Ben Hsu says:

      To be fair, this was only a (substantial) facelift so the rear and beltline can’t really be changed. The team had to work with the parameters already set with the current body. We’ll see what the full redesign looks like in a couple of years.

      • Jim Daniels says:

        There have been many great looking and handling sedans, BMW has made an entire reputation on them. However, BMW has not made them affordable. Nissian can make an affordable sports sedan, the Maxima has always looked good but no one cares, it is front wheel drive and bloated.

        The Japaneses auto companies need to stop trying to make better German automobiles with pricing that matches. The Japaneses auto makers have their own market, those people who want affordable RELIABLE exciting cars.

        The auto industry has created their own problems. They have built next to nothing that is exciting to drive and is affordable to the youth. Then they do all of their research in the urban jungles as the bulk of the consumers live there. However, those people live in an environment where they are in stop and go grid lock as soon as they pull out of their driveways. These people do not drive, you might as well give them a Leaf GPSed to go where it is programmed and give the driver a computer screen to play with.

        If there are fun cars out there to drive they are financially out of reach of the masses except the Mazda Mx5. Mazda appears to have their hand on the pulse and if the rest of the industry does not follow CPR will be the next step. Hopefully, the next Nissan small sedan will be more 510 than Maxima.

      • Jim Daniels says:

        Ben, I am just giving my two cents worth of what I see is needed in the markets future or currently. As a state emploiee I am all too aware of starting with less than mediocrity, given no tools to work with and expected to have an amazing outcome. For what the design team had to start with they did an amazing job.
        I was lucky to work with one of my Datsun friends today. He agreed that Nissan needs to build a small sedan series of auto like the 510.
        Give us a 2 door,4 door, possibly a hatch back, and a wagon. Front engine, rear wheel drive, and indepentant suspention, keep it simple using the same platform. It was fun to work with an Datsun guy.

        • Randy says:

          Not to hijack, but I think what you want is an Idx… Just like everybody who saw it – around the entire planet. . . but somebody (probably the bean counters) said it wouldn’t sell in enough volume to make it worth it.

          Hey, how cool would it be to have this comment section blow up like the Idx one did? 🙂

          • Jim Daniels says:

            Why, yes. I have never known an artest or engeneer that did not have great ideas and passion. Telling the boss they do not know what they are talking about my not be good for your employment. However, the boss not listening can also be a bad for his emploiment.

            If you have ever played the game telephone you know how the message can be changed when it reaches the final location. I was at Montaray two years ago when I met Ben. I talked with Nissan PR people. I discussed some of what I frequently say on this site, small, light, nimble, rear drive, standard transmission. The PR people told me how wrong I am. That their research showed people were more interested in larger, softer edged, mobile computer bases. I took statistics and know you can make numbers say anything you want them to say. Stop telling the boss what he wants to hear. Tell them what they need to hear. It may just save his job.

  4. Daniel says:

    Q: “Recently Nissan unveiled the GripZ concept and a lot of people on the internet got scared…”

    A: “…It all depends on people’s feedback, but we did not design the GripZ as the new Z. We took some themes from the original Z, but it was not intended as the Z. Nissan is always looking for new genres of vehicles, and the GripZ was used to do that, but it was not the Z.”

    People’s feedback…so Idx was:
    A bad feedback?
    A bad sugestion?
    A No-heritage identity?
    Can’t put the grille?

    Kudos for Mazda, still make and sell “the joy of driving” and not only “the experience of connection the phone”

  5. Fred Sigarto says:

    My first new car was a 72 Datsun 240Z, then a 73 Datsun pick up. In 91 we bought a Nissan Sentra SE-R 2 dr. coupe, loved it. Our 4 cyl. 09 Altima 2dr. 6sp coupe is ok, but no DOHC or limited-slip differential. The Wife and I would like to see a new 2dr.Sentra coupe with a DOHC and LSD standard shift. We do not care for 4 dr. sedans. Currently, we own a 09 Altima, a 72 240Z and a 10/69 Fairlady Z-L all stick shifts. Our next car will also be a 2 door stick shift.

  6. Yuri says:

    Fantastic article, Ben.
    I’m glad you’re starting to do these design based features now, it’ll show the average enthusiast the difficulty involved in modern vehicle design. It’s obvious that Mr. Ueda is an enthusiast (most of us automotive designers are), and it’s a challenge to walk that line in trying to bring the best you have into a vehicle that the company wants you to design.
    Very few car designers get that dream job, designing a legitimate enthusiasts car. My room mate from college, Randy Rodriguez, was one of them. He designed the Nissan 370Z.

    Often times, you end up seeing the hard core enthusiast designers working at companies that lend them more freedom to geek out and be enthusiasts, like Hot wheels or the automotive aftermarket, rather than being stuck doing redesigns on minivans.

  7. Nathan says:

    This shows everything that is wrong with Nissan. Toyota is just now starting to return to its roots, and hopefully will produce even more sporty offerings, as Toyoda-san has talked about. Honda is separating the marketing folks from the engineers. Mazda, of course, never lost its way and is now toying with bringing back the rotary engine.

    Subaru is a sanitized version of its former self, but still has a little bit of a flame left in the enthusiast lantern, and more recent versions of the WRX, according to some, offer some decent handling improvements over older models.

    On the far end of the spectrum, are Mitsubishi and Nissan.

    Mitsubishi has stopped making the Evo, a crime for which the JNC Oni will surely consume many an executive currently with the company.

    Nissan has lost its way. The core of its lineup isn’t as fun as it used to be. At the top end, the GTR is an oversized, overweight, geometric eyesore compared to its “predecessors” — although it isn’t technically a Skyline and would be a disgrace to the storied history of the Skyling name if it was — and not all of that is the fault of government regulations. A common complaint among journalists with the new Infinitis is that while they have supposedly “sporty” features, they offer cold and computerized driving experiences, with artificial feeling steering and lack driver involvement. Nissan isn’t a car manufacturer anymore, compared to its older self, so much as a house of smoke and mirrors on wheels, advertising fun, affordable cars that nothing more than cold, uninvolving boxes. Ouch!

    This interview shows everything that is wrong with Nissan. Nissan has not only lost its way, but likely won’t right itself any time soon. Well, not until blood-sucking-executive-super-vampire Carlos Ghosn is removed from the helm. Can someone please get me the phone number for the Hellsing Organization? I have a call to place….

  8. Randy says:

    Thinking about the story some more…

    “When I was young, if you asked someone to draw a car, they’d draw a three-box sedan. But today, if you ask a teenager to draw your typical car, they’ll draw an SUV or something else.”

    Well, that’s because that’s all they see; the 2-box design, going back to the first minivans.

    Thankfully, at least they’re not drawing the late-’90s Taurus…

    When I was a kid, my doodles were based on what I saw in real life, Hot Wheels/Matchbox vehicles, and cool TV programs.

  9. dickie says:

    I hope Nissan employees are reading these comments and getting a feel for how out-of-touch they’ve become in the pursuit of selling appliances vs. creating automobiles.

    I hope Toyota employees are reading these comments and getting a feel for how Nissan has abandoned a very important segment of the market, and it pushes them to refine the FR-S and sell the S-FR stateside.

    • Randy says:

      Just thinking out loud here — What if Nissan is following GM’s method of telling us what we want?

      What could possibly go wrong? 🙂

      • Jim Daniels says:

        Exactly, In the 70s GM kept telling the world what they wanted and telling the world they had improve quality without changing anything. Assuming no one will purchase those Japanese cars. Japan kept offering something different, small, light, economical all for less money.The manufactures now all try and compete for the same dollar. Japan, it appears you have forgotten what brought you to the dance.

  10. Locky says:

    It’s sad to say but it seems Nissan aren’t interested in everyday performance cars any more. Whilst I understand that it’s a big investment to build a new small sportscar chasis (which I think would pay off anyway) surely a propper hot hatch using their current architecture would be a good start? The current luke warm Pulsar SSS could easily be shaped into something much better than it currently is. Maybe swap in the Juke Nismo RS (why Nissan!!!!) 4wd running gear and engine, refresh the body style for a bit more agression and re-release the Pulsar GtiR! Surely that would be a better seller than the horrible juke.

    Go on Nissan, show the world you still know how to party! Just say you got drunk and Nismo had their way with you. I dare you.

    I should say for the record I am 36 years old have two kids and would love a practical, mid size performance Nissan that is not an SUV or FWD….Subaru can take my money for now

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