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.
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.
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?
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.
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.