Creating a stunning concept car that steals the limelight at a motor show is one thing, but translating that same beauty into a production car’s design is a far harder task. Here, we speak to chief designer Yasutake Tsuchida, production manager Kenji Anraku, who leads a team of master mould-makers, and Toshitaka Matsui, staff manager of the manufacturing engineering team in Mazda’s Hofu plant in Japan, about how they worked together to bring the company’s ultimate ideals to reality in the stunning new Mazda3

What is the key to translating the beauty of a concept into a production car?

Tsuchida: “The Mazda3 is based on the Kai concept model we unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show in 2017. Normally, making a mass production model from its concept means a series of compromises. But that’s not the way we work here. Craft is the key and we work very closely with everyone involved, from modellers to engineers to production members to achieve a truly artful form. This is why the production model retains the same design ethos and emotional glamour as its original concept.”

What was the thinking behind the design of the all-new Mazda3, and how did it fit into the company’s design philosophy?

Tsuchida: “Creating a simple yet strong, artful form is the next step forward for our Kodo – Soul of Motion design language. Before we reached this stage, we had continuously added design elements to try to give a more energetic form to the cars. But with this model, our focus has shifted to ‘less is more.’ During the development, we reviewed every design feature and stripped the car of what was not truly essential from the overall design.”

Handmade clay models play an important role in car design. How do you transfer the craftsmanship used to create these into the final production design?

Tsuchida: “Because it’s handmade, it’s only natural that a clay model has uneven surfaces and warped lines. They’re there with the intent of the modellers, but the computers can’t understand them. So when prototyping the side panels on the Mazda3, we ended up with one that has a smooth surface lacking the ‘soul’ the modellers had meticulously put into the shapes. At that point, we went back to the original clay model to investigate how different the prototypes were compared to the handmade forms. We went back and forth between the two so many times to recreate the quality of the clay model in the digital data, too.”

“NORMALLY, MAKING A MASS PRODUCTION MODEL FROM ITS CONCEPT MEANS A SERIES OF COMPROMISES. BUT THAT’S NOT THE WAY WE WORK”

How did the designers and engineers work together to develop a design for the production model?

Matsui: “It was obvious that the transition from the concept to the production model would prove challenging, as the former is designed free of [manufacturing] regulations and production requirements. But the engineers fully supported the chief designer in realising his vision. If we don’t have the skills and expertise to make it happen, we just innovate to overcome the challenges.”

Anraku: “Engineers discuss and sometimes argue with designers, but that’s all for the sake of taking the design to the next level. Even the slightest margin of error is not permitted here.”

Getting the moulds for the panels exactly right is essential to the process. How do you ensure this is the case?

Anraku: “The mould is the foundation for panel making, and the accuracy of transferring the surface shape is key to Kodo design, so we always need to improve on that. We use large processing machinery to cut a lump of cast metal, and once the general shape is formed there are inevitably some margins of error. So we use human hands to fine-tune it and nurture it to form the panels. We need to guarantee the accuracy and quality in certain aspects of the panels ahead of car assembly. As long as we’ve cleared that, we’ve built panels that are satisfactory.”

Can you explain the lengths you go to?

Anraku: “When we were making the mould for the Mazda3’s hood, the bulge of the character line didn’t come out as we wanted it, so we recut the mould entirely. It wasn’t that bad; the differences with the design were 0.1 or 0.2 mm. But we recut it anyway. You’d perhaps think a mere 0.1 mm no one will notice. But the designers trust us to get it right.”

Why did you pay such meticulous attention to the reflections of the side panels on the Mazda3?

Tsuchida: “Reflections change their shapes and colours depending on where the car is and the time of day. This is very important because the driver can appreciate the car more that way and their love of it deepens further.”

Did this focus on reflections make the panels harder to manufacture?

Matsui: “A tricky problem emerges with the movement of light from front door to rear door, rear door to side frame. There’s a gap because the metal plates move, so there’s a break in the flow of light. To achieve the best quality possible, we decided on a gap that is 25 per cent narrower than the industry average. If you look at the Mazda3 diagonally, you can’t see the gap at all. And in installation, the Takumi [craftsmen] adjust the gap between doors so they don’t get it wrong by even 0.1 mm, by adjusting the position of the door hinges.”