Nissan design: Rugged outside, warm tech inside

Boxier cars coming soon
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Nissan will return to a boxier, more rugged design ethos for its next wave of SUVs, as previewed by the Xmotion concept in Detroit.

At the same time, the company's head designer wants to find "warmth" in technology, and is wary of modern in-car tech's potential to de-humanise the interior.

Alfonso Albaisa, the Cuban-American design head for Nissan and Infiniti, told us recently he wants to recalibrate the company's crossover styling language.

In short: more bravado, more classic Japanese DNA, fewer generic and safe choices.

"[Xmotion] is a bit of new language of Nissan, where the Nissan brand, especially its crossovers, is becoming a little more masculine, go anywhere, a little more tough," he said.

Calling the fetching concept a "direction for the brand", Albaisa said to expect the "tonality" to carry over, sans the far-fetched concept add-ons like huge wheels and exotic materials.

The 4.6-metre long, six-seat Xmotion concept hinted (albeit more subtly) at powertrains to be used in the very near future.

Nissan's e-Power range-extender bridging tech will almost certainly feature in its next wave of crossovers, and was fitted to the concept.

This setup uses a petrol engine as a generator for an electric motor, which in turn powers the wheels. The upsides are a torque-laden EV driving, and the lack of any need to plug-in and recharge – not to mention conventional hybrid fuel economy.

With the technology now partially amortised – 100,000 Note hatchbacks with e-Power drivetrains have been sold in Japan within 18 months – it's ready for a wider global rollout.

"You have the ability of not needing to worry about the charging stations and all of that. We didn't necessarily communicate the concept as e-Power at the show itself. But, it has a platform that allows it to be e-Power at the same time. So, what does that mean [for design]?"

Albaisa also said he wanted his team to make future technologies "charming", lest modern cabins become a cold, emotionless wall of screens.

"I personally want to simplify the aesthetic and I want to shift the focus from just, just shape to a little bit more of the charming side of technology. Which I don't think is, right now, getting into the show cars. You're overwhelmed by technology," he said.

"I just hope it doesn't end being cold, so when we're doing things to how to warm up technology."

The Xmotion's three-row cabin has a gap between each pair of seats, rather charmingly said to represent the imagery of a river, in designer-speak, replete with the centre console acting as a ‘bridge’.

It uses a traditional Japanese architectural wood joinery technique, kanawa tsugi. The instrument panel design is called a modern interpretation of traditional kigumi wood joinery, while the whole interior includes a total of seven digital screen portions.

There’s also a “digital room mirror” in the ceiling and a centre console display. The displays and infotainment system can be controlled by gestures and eye movements, or by voice. Perhaps most interestingly, fingerprint authentication is used to start the car.

The sequence starts when the driver touches the authentication area on top of the console, awakening the virtual personal assistant – which takes the shape of a Japanese koi fish swimming seamlessly between the screens.

"Here you're seeing a little bit more of antiquity of Japanese culture mixed with the sense of technology of tomorrow. I'm not saying that this is going to be the next Rogue or Xterra, but how to play with mixing super advanced technology like these screens and the kind of interesting Japanese character [is key]'," Albaisa said.

"We've also have analogue-d over a human touch aesthetic. Which I'm personally am craving as a designer. The sense of Japan is looked at from a western eye, even though this was designed, convened by a Japanese digital artist.

"This is the new thing in my company, in my design house. I have film makers, they make short films. And people ask, 'Well, why do you need that? You guys are so rich you can spend money on that?'

"The issue is that, yes, always there will be information that is critical for driving, the speed, all the warnings, but also there's information coming of other parts of the car, other parts of the community, apps, any kind of updates to the freeway conditions.

"Who is managing how that stuff is coming in front of the driver? 'Cause this stuff cannot, should not distract. So, these short film makers and people are allowing us to bring a priority of information, a harmony of transition, all of these things is a part that I really like.

"At the end of the day, it brings a little bit of charm, a little bit of humanity into a technology."

All this sounds a little bit far-fetched, perhaps. But Albaisa is serious.

"I cannot commit that we won't make a completely wacky show car tomorrow that is completely disconnected from reality, but we do feel we're in the beginning of a conversation with people so a little bit more reality is needed," he said.