During two decades at Nissan, Hiren Patel, project lead designer at Nissan Design America in San Diego, has had the chance to work on luxury sedans, electric vehicles and sports cars.
But the past few years has found him concentrating on trucks like the Nissan Titan and Armada. Patel’s latest design, the all-new 2022 Nissan Frontier, reaches showrooms in September. It’s the truck’s first total redesign since 2005.
Given the truck’s loyal following, one not used to radical change, an all-new truck is a particularly challenging assignment. Recently, at the truck’s launch in Sundance, Utah, TheDetroitBureau.com spoke with Patel about the new pickup.
Updating a mainstay
TDB: Redesigning a vehicle that’s been around largely unchanged for 16 years is kind of a tall order, isn’t it?
Patel: It is. I think there’s a lot of pent-up anticipation. There’s also kind of an understanding that you have to approach it a bit more carefully than something you know is going to get replaced in the normal vehicle product cycle, like in two or three years.
TDB: So, when you say, “a bit more careful,” what do you mean?
Patel: I tend to think that with some segments of vehicles, our customers are looking for the latest, greatest, most fashionable thing, more like the look of the season. And for other segments, they’re looking for things that are maybe a bit more longstanding, that are going to look good in 10 or 15 years. And I think the truck segment for me is that more of the latter, where people are looking for things that they’re going to buy, own, grow with, and make a lot of memories in those vehicles. And so, there’s a little bit of pressure on you to make sure it still looks good after a few years.
TDB: So, it means that it has to be up to date without being fashionable, right? It has to have a sense of timelessness?
Patel: Yeah, I think it has to be up to date without looking too at-the-minute trending.
TDB: Were you were apprehensive that maybe you would push a little too far? What was your biggest apprehension approaching this project?
Patel: There was not any apprehension that we were pushing it too far at all. It was mostly about trying to get as much right as we could about the design. For us in the studio, this is a new product, and it should look new, and there should be a lot of high-tech elements to it. But I really wanted nine out of 10 people to look at that truck and say, “that’s a good truck,” and not be able to pick apart and say, “oh, I like it because of this or this or this.” But just walk into the room and say, “that’s a good-looking truck right there.” And that’s kind of the biggest apprehension, the biggest challenge; keeping it fresh.
TDB: Yeah, because a well-conceived design is good in its totality; you don’t see the different elements when you first see it.
Patel: Yeah, absolutely. And we didn’t want it to be one of those designs where you’re like, “oh, well, you know, if you kind of live with it for a month or a couple of days, you might see it the 10th time and you might grow to like it.” We didn’t want that with the Frontier.
Drawing inspiration from the past
TDB: You mentioned the Nissan Hardbody earlier today. The Hardbody is such a great truck. Obviously, it was an inspiration.
Patel: Yeah, it’s awesome.
TDB: What about that truck inspires you?
Patel: The Hardbody was the first vehicle that was designed at our studio in San Diego. So, there’s a little bit of that studio history going on. And one of the other things about the Hardbody was the context in which it was released. I look at what else was around in 1986 when the Hardbody came out, and you think about all the other compact trucks, they were just scaled down version of the big trucks, and they even had the same treatment. They were just smaller. And the Hardbody was its own thing. The other part of it that I really like is the cleanliness of that design. Every panel has a purpose, and the look of toughness to it even though it’s a small truck. Like the fenders, they look tough.
TDB: What you’ve pulled off with the new Frontier is a tricky balancing act. When you’re looking at it from the front three-quarters angle, there’s a softness to it, despite its chiseled front end. Yet it looks strong. That’s difficult to pull off.
Patel: Yeah, it is. That balance was very much pulled from the Hardbody. I really like the way that the sheet metal is formed on that truck. And so, when I looked at a lot of that stuff for our truck, I didn’t obviously just copy and paste things, but there was a lot of inspiration.
TDB: So, the Hardbody informed your design rather than inspired it. Is that fair to say?
Patel: I think it informed rather than dictating it. We didn’t just take this element and stick it on the new truck because it wouldn’t work with these proportions. It’s a different category now. But there’s a feeling of strength to each panel, and there’s a cleanliness to all of the lines, a kind of organization to the whole vehicle.
TDB: You said that it’s a different category now. Explain the difference, then and now.
Patel: Well, it’s quite a bit bigger now. I think when the Hardbody was around, a truck was just a truck. There was a little bit of that sport lifestyle component, but mostly, people were buying them for functional reasons. And now, these modern midsize pickup trucks, they’re first reason for people to buy this vehicle is not just purely as a basic work truck. They’re doing more stuff in it. They have their kids in the backseat, they have a lot more tech requirements. Safety’s a big deal in these trucks now, whereas a truck from the ’80s would crumple and you’d expected it. But that’s not what customers are expecting today. The game has moved on.
Soft and strong
TDB: When we were talking about the styling earlier today, you said that the Frontier has a softness of form that you tend to like.
Patel: Yeah. In some places, I think it’s really appropriate. When I think of strong-looking panels, I tend to think of a softer shape. If you imagine the shoulder of somebody who’s very strong, that’s a soft shape. There’s a kind of unseen and unsaid strength. Like, I love those old American trucks from the ’60s or even the ’50s. They were super soft. The hood was just this big, round form, and even the cabins were really round. I look at those panels and they look so strong to me because of that aspect.
TDB: And yet so many modern trucks are large and feature a slab-sided look to impart a feeling of strength.
Patel: I think for the big trucks especially, there’s been a race to look as big as possible. And that’s forced designers to put less shape in their panels because they want to maximize everything. They want to pull the glass as wide as they can, make the grille as big as possible, the lamps as big and high as possible. Everything is out to the corners. So, you don’t get any shape in the vehicle. There’s no shape in the fenders anymore, there are only these creases. So, lucky for us, midsize truck buyers don’t usually want the biggest thing in the world. They recognize why they’re buying a midsize truck. So, we took the opportunity to add a lot of shape.
TDB: Another thing that’s interesting is the interior has high tech, yet it retains its identity of being a simpler truck. It’s a neat design trick that you’ve pulled off.
Patel: That was very conscious. As we were talking about what kind of shapes on the outside form for a feeling of strength and durability and trust, there was also that same debate on the interior. So, you won’t find floating tablet displays; all of our tech is embedded into the structure. And so, it gives you this feeling of toughness. And there are still dials in it. People like dials.
TDB: And it still has knobs for the audio system.
Patel: Yeah, if you’re wearing gloves, you can’t move the volume up and down if it’s on a slider, and things like that are really important for this customer.
TDB: Of all the design flourishes on the truck and things that you brought to the truck, is there one thing you’re particularly proud of?
Patel: I am proud of the stance of this truck. You know what? We’ve been staring at clay models in the studio forever. I’ve been imagining what this truck is going to look like rolling down the road, or how it’s going to look on the trail. And for a standard truck, we paid a lot of attention to the relationship of the tire to the rest of the body and how it looks at every angle. So, I’m proud about that. Now that I see them rolling down the road, they look pretty good, and none of these trucks have been modified yet.
TDB: You know, having to approach the Frontier’s design from a more conservative stance is probably more challenging because you don’t have the bandwidth, but you still have to make it something.
Patel: Yeah, and knowing that people aren’t buying these products just for the way they look, they’re buying them for the really work. That makes it different kind of responsibility. So, the technical engineering, and all of the stuff that goes into making these vehicles function well during their duties becomes really important. We don’t design around that; we have to design with them.