Four decades. Four groundbreaking concepts that transformed Nissan

Four decades. Four groundbreaking concepts that transformed Nissan

While design concepts may never see the dealer showroom, their DNA is woven into every Nissan and INFINITI vehicle

Concept cars hold a hallowed position in the automotive design process: They provide designers with unbridled freedom to create something without the restrictions associated with production vehicles.

These "show cars" allow engineers to unveil the latest innovations in technology and powertrain development. Meanwhile, they give designers an opportunity to dream big, and to gauge the reception of visual elements before they are implemented on production vehicles.

As Nissan Design America (NDA) celebrates 40 years of its San Diego facility, opened in February 1983, we asked designers to reflect on the impact of four landmark concepts that originated at NDA.

1980s: NX-21

In the future-focused 1980s, Nissan had established itself at the forefront of cutting-edge technology and design. For proof, look no further than the 1983 NX-21: the first concept created at Nissan Design America (then Nissan Design International, Inc.).

With wind-cheating lines and a huge greenhouse, the NX-21 featured gull-wing doors and a rear-mounted turbine engine that could run on multiple fuel sources.  

NX-21 concept

The NX-21 concept, with its gull-wing doors and aerodynamic bodywork.

When Hiren Patel began working at NDA in 2001, he overlapped with some of the original NX-21 design team. Now senior manager, Exterior Design, Patel says the NX-21 was a prime example of Nissan's dedication to providing the "perfect blend" of quality, affordability and tech.

"The NX-21 was category-breaking, not only in terms of aesthetic, but functionality," Patel said. "It felt like it was from the future." He added that concepts like the NX-21 allow a brand to give the public and press an idea of where their design language is heading.

"We don't have fast fashion in the car business," Patel explained. "It's like having a runway model. After going to Paris Fashion Week, you're not going to buy that look at a store the next day, but it gives you an idea of the aesthetic."

Indeed, three years later, the NX-21's visual cues were clearly seen in the second-generation Nissan Pulsar NX production car, which debuted in 1986 as a 1987 model with a first-of-its-kind removable hatch roof. One glance at the Pulsar's angular rear and louvered taillamps shows the NX-21's influence.

Pulsar NX

Sold outside the U.S. as the EXA, the Pulsar NX featured bold louvered taillights and a modular, removable rear hatch.

1990s: Z Concept

When sales of the Nissan 300ZX in the U.S. ceased after 1996, fans were understandably eager to know about the future of the iconic sports car. The answer came in the form of the 1999 Z Concept.

Revealed at the 1999 Detroit Auto Show, the Z Concept made it clear: Nissan was committed to producing world-class sports cars.

Bruce Campbell, who retired as vice president of NDA in 2010, was focused on the concept's interior. He said that while the Z Concept's design was not retro, it was a clear homage to a back-to-basics, lightweight sports car.

"We wanted to make it modern and yet have some clues that would reference the original 240Z," Campbell said. "It was fun to go back and pare it down to the essentials, and truly make it a sports car instead of just a sporty car."

The 1999 Z Concept indicated the imminent return of the legendary sports car.

The Z Concept was not a direct visual inspiration for the 350Z, which launched for the 2003 model year, but the principles of the concept lived on in the production vehicle.

"What carried over was the sense of that clean, simple gesture," Campbell said.

Bruce's son, Ryan, is currently product lead designer at NDA. He said the most important aspect of the Z Concept wasn't the car itself, but rather the message it delivered.

"Nissan isn't done with the Z. The Z is going to come back," the younger Campbell said. "This was a signal that the dream is still alive. That's what this concept car was."

Nissan 350Z

The production 350Z, which launched for the 2003 model year.

2000s: INFINITI Essence

Sometimes, a concept's purpose is not to preview one production vehicle, but an entire lineup. That was certainly the case when INFINITI revealed its striking Essence concept at the 2009 Geneva Motor Show.

Giovanny Arroba, senior director, Design, says that the dramatic lines of string instruments inspired his first sketch for the show car. Now based in Japan, Arroba was a senior designer at NDA when he designed the exterior of the concept.

"It was meant to be a symphony of shape, seduction and beauty," Arroba said. "I wanted to do something that was distinctive and had not been done before."

Giovanny Arroba working on a scale model of the Essence at NDA's San Diego studio.

Giovanny Arroba working on a scale model of the Essence at NDA's San Diego studio.

The Essence debuted the new version of INFINITI's double-arch grille, an elongated beltline and distinctive "crescent cut" rear side windows. The dramatic look received widespread praise.

The Essence had a substantial impact on INFINITI's look throughout the 2010s, as designers regularly referenced it when styling production vehicles.

"It's an honor to become part of that story. That's what drives you to do it again and again," Arroba said. "When you work on a car like that, it's magic."

The Essence demonstrated a show car's wide-reaching impact on a brand's aesthetic. And now, 14 years later, the recently revealed QX Monograph concept is doing the same – previewing the future of INFINITI design.

Inside and out, the Essence debuted design elements that were incorporated throughout the INFINITI lineup.

2010s: Xmotion concept

When it came time to redesign the massively popular Rogue in the late 2010s, Nissan designers set out to preview its new look through the Xmotion concept.

"We wanted to use [the Xmotion concept] as an exploration project for future design language," said Lars Taubert, project lead designer, who was part of the Xmotion team at NDA. He said the designers leaned into Nissan's Japanese DNA and created something that was equal parts tough and emotive.

The Xmotion's bold stance is emphasized by hulking fenders, U-shaped headlights and a daring new iteration of Nissan's signature V-motion grille – all elements that can be seen in today's production Rogue. Taubert said Xmotion was just one example of how concepts give consumers a view into a designer's working process.

Xmotion Concept

Lars Taubert's sketch of the Xmotion concept.

"It's mainly a communication tool. You get people used to changing shapes, and you can use them to communicate your future thoughts," he said.

While the Xmotion previewed the third-generation Rogue, like other concept cars, its styling has influenced several Nissan vehicles.

"Internally, concepts have a benefit because we very frequently reference them to say, 'That was great. Let's try that,'" Taubert said.

Xmotion Concept
Nissan Rogue

The Xmotion's design cues are clearly seen in the current Nissan Rogue, from its athletic fenders to its unique headlights.

For decades, concept cars have been a staple of Nissan's design strategy. And with more in the pipeline, they will continue to blur the lines between now and next.

"Concept cars are fundamental to setting trends and pushing boundaries in technology, human-machine interface, design and brand," David Woodhouse, vice president of NDA, said. "They are the sentinels of future ambition."

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