How automakers create cars is being inverted and it's all due to physics.
We got insight into today's vehicle design by sitting down with Nissan's Senior Vice President of Global Design, Alfonso Albaisa, at the 2022 New York auto show. The designer also gave us some hints at the future, including a possible electric pickup truck.
Nissan EV teaser
Inverting car design
Vehicle design in the modern era has become a numbers game, according to Albaisa. Before a vehicle is even designed, a spatial volume and a target coefficient of drag are set in stone. That's the marker. The rest is shaped, sculpted, and designed around these numbers. This is the opposite of how it used to be.
"In the old days, aerodynamics was something that we were doing after we get a design engineered," Albaisa said. Efficiency was almost an afterthought, but there were not volume and aero targets to design around.
The process of designing a car now starts with making a shape and setting where the nose has to be. This involves the height of the front end, hood line, and cowl. This all plays into hitting the target coefficient of drag for the specific vehicle. The rest comes after at this point.
This inversion of the process is not easy, the executive said, and it then becomes a battle of proportions. How does the length, width, silhouette, and taper of the cabin all work with the headlamp shape, body size, and shape of the skin (metal)? Some tricks popping up in mainstream family cars include holes, or ducts, in the front bumper to direct air flow around the front as seen on the latest Rogue crossover SUV. According to the veteran designer this all has to do with the width and if the wind can get around the vehicle cleanly, and it changes from car to car. Just because a vehicle is wider doesn't mean it needs the ducts to direct wind around the front. Albaisa noted the Pathfinder doesn't have any ducts on the front end despite being wider than the Rogue.
Albaisa noted the future lineup of Nissans is already designed and sitting in his studio in Japan, but he wouldn't say how many have been fully designed.
Nissan Surf-Out concept
An electric Nissan pickup truck
Nissan's pickup truck started life in the U.S. in 1959 as the Datsun B-10, and it might not hit the end of the road anytime soon. The new Frontier is the starting point for the automaker, and perhaps not the finale.
Albaisa told MA he's informed his team to "start thinking, because the evolution of the pickup truck is not going to be like the other cars."
The executive noted the Japanese company invented a category of small pickups called "little hustlers" back in the '70s and '80s. It's part of the automaker's iconography.
Nissan Surf-Out concept
In November, Nissan provided the first details of its comprehensive electrified plan. Four concept vehicles were part of that presentation, including a small lifestyle-oriented pickup truck called the Surf-Out. The concept featured a single-cab body with a removable canopy. The Surf-Out concept was the result of Albaisa instructing his team to think about the electric future, which in his mind includes trucks. The executive was quick to note that concept isn't bound for production, but rather "that little car had meaning." We'll have to wait to see what that meaning is.
Albaisa could not comment on where an electric pickup truck falls in the automaker's future timeline, but he said Nissan makes trucks.
In terms of retro design influences, Albaisa said the automaker will only do that when it makes sense. The Ariya is a new nameplate, so it features a design that's all its own. If the automaker were to do a Murano EV the executive would think about reaching into the past. "The first-generation Murano was spectacular," Albaisa said, followed by, "the second one was not."
Albaisa noted the young designers on his team were born in the 1980s, and they tend to be obsessed with that era's look.
Nissan Max-Out concept
For sports car and roadster enthusiasts, Albaisa said a Fairlady (referring to the Datsun convertible built in the 1960s) could come back in the electric era before quickly catching himself from saying more. Nissan spokesperson Dan Passe noted that once you have the EV skateboard "you can build anything." One of those four concepts in November, dubbed the Max-Out, was a roadster. It wasn't retro or in any real way tied to a Fairlady in design, but it was a roadster.
The interview didn't confirm any future electric sports car plans, but it did reveal that Nissan is thinking about one, as well as some type of electric pickup truck.