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Can beauty earn big bucks for Mazda?
ASIDE from the technical improvements that carmakers usually try to include with a new model, the revamped Mazda 3 needed something extra: it had to be "the most gorgeous sedan in its class".
That's according to Kota Beppu, the new car's programme manager, in a statement accompanying its global launch last week at the Los Angeles Auto Show, which ends Dec 9.
A vital car for Mazda - six million Mazda 3s have been sold since the nameplate's launch in 2003 - the latest model ushers in a host of key new technologies.
It rides on a new architecture that Mazda will use to build the bulk of its new cars from now on.
Mazda is also launching its Skyactiv-X engine with the car. Using a hybrid of petrol and diesel combustion techniques, the new engine is a world first that Mazda says will produce up to 30 per cent more pulling power than a comparable petrol motor, while consuming up to 40 per cent less fuel.
But while what's under the skin of the new Mazda 3 is important, Mazda is even more serious about the skin itself.
"We want to take the quality of our design to an artistic level. We aim at the level of art," said Yasushi Nakamuta, the general manager of the Advance Design Studio and Design Division for Mazda Motor Corporation.
Mr Nakamuta spoke to the The Business Times at the Mazda Design Forum Asean 2018 in Bangkok, where the Japanese company laid bare its unusual design practices.
While car manufacturers tend to start with drawings and sketches, for example, Mazda designers use sculptures as a starting point. The brand calls them "design objects", since they are essentially vague physical doodles.
"We begin with design objects, which are then shaped into cars," Mr Nakamuta said. "It's a unique approach that only Mazda Design uses."
Mazda says its design department consumes more sculpting clay than any other carmaker, which is notable because the company itself is a relatively small player. In 2016 it ranked 16th in global auto sales.
But Mazda believes that approaching cars as art can give it an edge.
"It is for us to differentiate (Mazda) from regular, or mass-selling brands, like Toyota or Honda," Hiroshi Inoue, managing executive officer, in charge of Asia & Oceania, and New Emerging Markets of Mazda Motor Corporation, President of Mazda South-east Asia, told BT.
"Design is a critical example of this, if people see our design with a quality and premium perspective, we can raise our image."
The strategy has paid off so far. In the past four years, sales volume in Asia has grown 50 per cent, Mr Inoue said.
Worldwide unit sales have risen every year since Mazda launched its current design and engineering philosophy in 2012, Akira Marumoto, the carmaker's chief executive, said at the Mazda 3's launch.
Mr Marumoto also said the new Mazda 3 has a chassis design that maximises the human body's ability to balance itself. "It offers more comfortable and less tiring driving," he said.
Exploiting such human characteristics is one way Mazda's engineers approach their work, but the company's designers are on to something just as valid: What could be more human than the desire for beauty, after all?