Mazda Europe design boss on why brand's fwd cars have a rwd look

Mazda's fwd drive cars such as the Mazda3, shown, have the long, flowing looks of premium rear-drive models.
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Unlike most automakers competing in Europe, Mazda is not downsizing its engines to help meet tougher emissions standards. It's driving efficiency by changing its engine geometry. One of the side benefits of this approach is that Mazda's front-wheel-drive models have the long, flowing looks of popular premium rear-drive models. Mazda Europe design chief Peter Birthwhistle, who has spent a quarter century with the automaker following stints at Vauxhall, Audi and Porsche, explained how and why this happened in an interview with Automotive News Europe Correspondent Olive Keogh.

Mazda claims it takes a 'convention-defying' approach to car design. What does that mean?

For all our latest cars, that's connected to our Sky Active technology, based on the layout of the vehicle and our approach to engine construction. We do things slightly differently. We don't have an engine downsizing philosophy, for example. We have larger, normally aspirated engines – the gasoline engines anyway – and that means we have to look at the style of their exhaust systems. With SkyActive engines the lay out of the exhaust systems is designed to produce very free flowing exhaust gases.

How does this affect the car's design?

From a design perspective this means pushing back the passenger cell to allow for a sloped angle where the exhaust comes out of the engine. This results in quite a long hood with proportions more like those of rear-wheel-drive vehicles.

Meet the design boss
Name: Peter Birthwhistle
Title: Chief Designer, Mazda Motor Europe
Age: 62
Main Challenge: Using design to help Mazda win customers from premium brands in Europe.

Birthwhistle: ''Eventually, I guess, we will be rolling out hybrids in Europe and then moving on to EVs.''

Any other examples?

Look at Mazda's history with the rotary engine. At the recent Tokyo auto show we showed a very compact range extender with a single rotor that drives a generator. It goes in the trunk and can keep an electric motor's battery charged giving a range of about 400km on an electric vehicle.

Does that mean Mazda is planning EVs?

There is a Mazda2 electric vehicle, but it's a leased unit and not generally available. But obviously it's a technology we are working on. We have a building block type of process with regard to alternative energy and future powertrains.

What changes do you see for tomorrow's engines?

There's still a lot of potential in conventional engines. They remain very inefficient in terms of things like heat loss. Get that sorted out and there's amazing potential in gasoline engines in terms of fuel economy.

What about hybrids?

We just announced a Mazda hybrid3, which is important to the Japanese market. Eventually, I guess, we will be rolling out hybrids in Europe and then moving on to EVs.

What will the car of the 22nd century look like inside and out?

I do not think there will be cars as we know them then. I think by the end of this century there will be personal transport pods. There might still be small cars but probably only for recreation, for people to have fun in on track days. I think 22nd century people looking at today's cars will be amazed that we used to drive these things ourselves! Not that far fetched when you consider that a number of manufacturers are already working on driverless cars.

Will Mazda's European sales continue to rise in 2014?

Yes. We expect the success of the CX-5 to continue and we are also experiencing healthy sales of the new Mazda6. We also have the roll out of the new Mazda3 and traditionally our compact segment vehicle has been our biggest seller.

What is the focus of Mazda's Frankfurt design studio?

It is an advanced studio that prepares the very first ideas for new models. We have 20 people here, all with creative backgrounds, working on different programs. We do quite a few proposals, as do our colleagues in our studio in North America. All designs are forwarded to Hiroshima, Japan. They put them together and make the final decision on how a vehicle will look.

What attracted you to Mazda when you joined 25 years ago?

It was a company going places. Mazda is a small producer in global terms but it makes a wide range of interesting vehicles. Under Ford's influence we got more involved in market research and clinic evaluations. People are often very cautious when they look at cars in clinics and their views drove a slightly more conservative look to our cars. That really was not Mazda.

What keeps you awake at night?

Wondering what my kids are up to.

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