WAKO, Japan -- Japan's killer earthquake-tsunami double punch slammed the country in 2011, knocking out Honda's operations -- and those of its domestic rivals -- for months.
But the disaster carried a silver lining for Honda that has radically transformed its design department -- for the better.
Refugee engineers from Honda's tremor-trashed r&d center in the quake zone initially had no place to work. So they bivouacked to Honda's design and styling studio just outside of Tokyo.
And what happened next stunned insiders, recalls Yoshinori Asahi, global head of interior design for Honda and Acura.
Working elbow to elbow, engineers no longer shot down stylists' ambitious designs with a dismissive e-mail. And designers more willingly dialed back fantastical drawings after receiving a face-to-face dose of reality from more grounded engineers.
Both sides riffed off each other so well that Honda permanently transferred dozens of engineers to the global design center last spring. Their arrival is crucial as Honda rolls out a new design language to revitalize the brand.
"Before, engineers saw the designs and said 'So, this is what you want, eh?'" Asahi said. "Now they say, 'We can't say no.'"
Honda says the overhaul is not only speeding design work but delivering more practical designs that are more cutting-edge, because both sides are more vested in creating something good.
The stakes are high because Honda is introducing the new design language with the third-generation Fit small car that went on sale in September in Japan. Dubbed Exciting H Design, it's aimed at returning Honda to its sporty roots.
"We have lost a bit of our sportiness while retaining good functionality," said Toshinobu Minami, global director for exterior design at the carmaker's two brands. "First, we want sportiness. The thing I want most is to recover our uniqueness."
The design overhaul of Honda's product range targets both exterior styling -- long criticized for ho-hum looks -- and the interior, which was panned as cheap and plasticky in the debut of the latest Civic sedan.
Keywords of the philosophy: High Touch, High Tech and High Tension.
Minami and Asahi adopted the English terms -- used even in Japan -- for a common language that could be easily grasped in Honda's far-flung design studios in America, Europe and Asia.
High Touch refers to quality surface treatments and the use of top-grade materials, an obvious rebut to the Civic critics.
High Tension denotes a more muscular stance and a more engaging cockpit.
High Tech is realized through the extensive use of touchpad controls on the center stack. Meanwhile, Minami's new formula for a front look, dubbed Solid Wing Face, blends the grille into the headlamps, creating a more futuristic look.
"Face is important," Minami said. "But this is a new phase. This time, Honda's new face integrates the grille and headlights into one. It's a new era."
What Honda's design duo doesn't want is a new look just to be new. New can quickly become old.
"We used to debate the meaning of new, what is the value of new. But it's not about old and new," Asahi says. "It has to be stimulating and emotional."
A better, more exciting stance is critical, Minami says.
Consider the third-generation Fit.
It has a much more athletic, chiseled look than the outgoing Fit, which is bubble-shaped. And while both are the same width and height, the new model has a more low-slung stance.
Minami says he achieved this by twisting the car along the sharply creased character line to push the rear wheels out and pinch the rear cabin inward. The line's sudden downward bend toward the front wheels lends the feeling of a lower front end.
From the front, Minami tries to accentuate a broader tread by spacing fog light cowls low and wide near the corners. Though presented as air intake vents, they are actually dummies that are sealed shut. That is to improve aerodynamics. In fact, the lower mesh grille below the H badge is also part dummy, with about half the mesh openings actually closed.
Improving aerodynamics is another big focus. Minami said the latest Fit achieves a big improvement in drag reduction over the outgoing model, though Honda declines to give specific figures.
Tweaks throughout help cheat the wind:
- Taillamps wrap around the edge of the hatchback. They get a razor-cleaved rim to make a clean break with the wind, but because they are transparent plastic, they mitigate a boxy look.
- An all-new platform was designed to keep the car's undercarriage flat by raising bumps and bulges such as the oil pan.
- The A-pillars get special ridges to maximize air flow. The ridges are then integrated into the overall design through creases that stretch down each side of the hood.
Watch for those tricks, as well as the rest of the Exciting H package, to be deployed across the Honda line.
Next up: A Fit-based small crossover that will debut at November's Tokyo Motor Show and go on sale in Japan this year.
A concept version, the Urban SUV Concept, was shown at the Detroit auto show last January. That car, which gets many of the Fit's styling cues, is very close to the production version, Minami said.
A Fit-based subcompact sedan will follow the crossover.
Involving engineers early in the design process is key.
Before, the creative types at the design studio would start a design by dashing off dozens of sketches drawn from the farthest frontiers of their imaginations, Asahi says.
Yet, less attention was paid to whether such designs were realistic. What raw materials are needed? How will it be manufactured? Does a flashy dash panel actually accommodate the air conditioning offered by suppliers? Does the center console sufficiently house the audio display?
"As you do the feasibility studies, the design starts looking worse," Asahi said. If you don't start with the big picture, one small miscalculation can throw off the whole package.
Now designers start from materials and functions, and they draw ideas to fit those realities. "It's a big mind change," Asahi said.
Stationing engineers inside the design center to consult earlier in the development cycle helps streamline the process.
While it injects a dose or reality for the designers, it also pressures the engineers to try harder to realize more avant-garde ideas. "A good mix is necessary," Asahi said.
Indeed, last October, the design studio opened the 01 Lounge as a kind of creative retreat for engineers and designers.
There, they chill out on couches, sip cappuccinos or pluck a guitar as they banter back and forth to fire their neurons and find inspiration for that leap from nothingness to an initial idea, the first step in Honda's 10-stage march to a fixed design.
"Once the factory people start working closely with designers, they become more motivated to actually help bring those designs to life," Asahi said. "It's a very powerful support for us."