TOKYO -- Akinori Nakanishi is under the gun. Mitsubishi Motors Corp. wants its new chief designer to create some hot new models in a hurry to help revive the company's collapsing sales.
Mitsubishi is foundering in Japan, where its reputation is taking a beating from an ongoing recall scandal. Sales are in free fall here, too.
"I can't afford to make a mistake," says Nakanishi, who took over in June as Mitsubishi's new design boss.
He faces several challenges. He has to decide what to keep and what to discard from the styling themes invoked by Olivier Boulay, his high-profile predecessor.
And Nakanishi has to meet CEO Yoichiro Okazaki's mandate that Mitsubishis be distinguished by their sportiness -- at a time when several other carmakers also are seeking a sporty look.
The 50-year-old designer hints that future Mitsubishi sedans may rely heavily on four-wheel drive and sporty suspensions. He favors close cooperation between designers and engineers.
"There's no wall between us," Nakanishi says of the design and engineering departments. He names several senior engineering managers whom he considers friends.
"People can like the styling, and if they then experience good handling of the car, they'll like the styling even more," Nakanishi says.
He has to work fast. To address widespread concerns about Mitsubishi's future, Okazaki has promised the media a sneak peek at Mitsubishi's future products in late November or early December.
Nakanishi has to prepare mock-ups of 10 or more future production vehicles by then. That is in addition to the usual concept-car work for auto shows.
Nakanishi helped design the 2001 Pajero Evolution concept.
1 "Unique packaging, which gives consumers a new experience."
He cites the front-wheel drive, low-hood minivan look that Mitsubishi says it invented years before Chrysler Corp. Packaging innovations would give Mitsubishi not only a unique look but a commercial advantage, too.
"If it's the same old packaging, it could be copied," Nakanishi says. "But if it's totally different, it would take five or six years before Toyota or Honda could copy it."
In addition to sporty suspensions and 4wd, Nakanishi says: "The wheels' presence should be really important."
On the other hand, he says, Mitsubishi's designs need to be less bulky around the engine compartments. Instead of highlighting the engine's space, cars should pay more attention to the human space, Nakanishi says. One exception: the muscular off-road Pajero SUV, which is known in the United States as the Montero.
3 "Simple and straightforward."
This would be "a bit different" from Mitsubishi's designs in the Boulay era, Nakanishi says. For example, he says to expect lines that are simpler, in the way that lines in Japanese comic books are simpler than the lines in European oil paintings.
He favors a minimalist, less-is-more approach.
Before taking the top design post, Nakanishi headed Mitsubishi's European design studio in Trebur, Germany, near Frankfurt. There he led a staff of 15 nationalities. "It was like UNESCO. Nobody spoke English as a mother tongue," he says.
At first he worried that the mix would prove unmanageable. Instead, the cultural differences forced everyone to work harder at clarifying ideas when communicating. It paid off when the studio produced the well-received 2004 Colt for Europe and Japan.
Mitsubishi's new styling chief helped to design the 2001 CZ2 concept, top, and Europe's 2004 Colt, above.
Among concept cars, he singles out the 1987 HSR-I.
"The styling was not perfect," Nakanishi says, but the car combined styling and engineering in a novel way. It achieved an impressive drag coefficient of 0.20 , through the use of several creative techniques.
For example, instead of allowing air to swirl at random in the engine compartment, designers and engineers created a tunnel-like flow and added a fan to pull air from the engine bay out of the car.
Nakanishi vows to use all three Mitsubishi design studios. They are in Japan, Europe and the United States.
In some cases a particular model will be assigned to a certain studio. Just as the European studio was in charge of the European Colt, Mitsubishi's U.S. studio in Cypress, Calif., will design the U.S.-market Galant, Eclipse and Endeavor.
But all studios usually will be invited to offer design concepts when a new model is conceived. Once a studio wins the assignment, though, Nakanishi aims to speed up the design process by streamlining the organization and delegating authority.
Previously, three or four layers of managers reviewed a designer's work before getting to the company's chief designer. "Now it will go from the designer to me," Nakanishi says.
That doesn't mean micromanagment. After the overall design direction is set, he says, "I won't step into the process."
In late July, Nakanishi flew from Tokyo to Cypress, Detroit and Trebur and then back to Tokyo, with only a one-day stop in each place. Mitsubishi Motors R&D of America Inc., which runs the California design center, also has an office in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Boulay was known for traveling like that to get face time with each studio. But Nakanishi insists that he won't continue such globetrotting.
He says his staff doesn't need to have managers standing over them to keep them working.
"Designers are very self-motivated," Nakanishi says. "They're happy to have more freedom."