FRANKFURT – It’s not the next Mazda Motor Corp. minivan, but in an exercise that looks years into the future, it certainly will steer design inspiration down the road.

Except the Washu, unveiled at the Detroit show in January, is too sleek and low to be accurately described as a minivan. The vehicle’s 242-hp 3.5L V-6 engine drives the front wheels, so it's altogether too delicate to be an SUV (see related story: Mazda Announces RX-8 Pricing, Shows Concept).

Sliding doors and doors that open into the roof are not exactly innovative. And others have explored the design and packaging possibilities opened up by drive-by-wire steering. But no one before has pulled all these elements together in so convincing a form.

Mazda Washu unveiled at Detroit auto show points to future product design.

Mazda's Washu is the auto maker’s first concept car developed under new design boss, Moray Callum. "You can't pigeonhole the Washu," says Callum. "It's difficult to define what it is. Mazda's not big enough, like Toyota (Motor Corp.) and Honda (Motor Co. Ltd.), to do cars for specific markets, so we need to produce our own classes of vehicles.

"Everything we do needs to fit everywhere. It's important we avoid obvious me-too products. We see a need for an MPV that's something like this, not quite a 1-box in appearance, yet a car that looks like it can be driven fast."

Washu is the first of a string of new concepts Mazda plans to unveil in 2003. Expect another at the Frankfurt motor show in September and possibly two or more at October's Tokyo motor show, as Ford Motor Co.’s Japanese subsidiary builds on the success of the Mazda6, RX-8 and the soon-to-be launched Mazda3.

J Mays, Ford's vice president of design and Callum's immediate superior in terms of design, at the time called the Washu "the most modern car at the show." The Washu, he says, also is about the developing face of Mazda. "It's an evolution of Mazda's 5-point grille that puts less emphasis on the grille. You'll see more change in the nose."

Mazda's design group in Hiroshima first began thinking about a concept car for Detroit in April 2002. Mazda is known for three different types of cars: sports cars; family cars and people carriers," says Callum.

"It was logical to look at what we've done recently. And that led us to the overall concept of a 6-seater – a model that is what Mazda would do in the future that demonstrates, in practical terms, how it would work with three rows of seats."

Callum arrived at Mazda in September 2001, so the concept car also became a useful exercise in his learning more about the auto maker’s design flair.

"I wanted to know more about the capability, in creative terms, of the design talent within Mazda," he says, "So we opened up the competition to all the designers available, about 30, including our German and California studios. We're so busy that, for most, it was what sketching they could do in their spare time.

"We took these down to seven or eight, including exterior and interior themes," he continues. "And quickly moved to three 1:4 scale models. It was a unanimous decision to go with Kovichi Hayashi's design, developed under chief designer Norihito Iwao."

Callum admits there were no precise hard points beyond providing for three rows of seats capable of carrying six adults in comfort. The wheelbase could vary across a range, as the concept car would be built on an extended Mazda6 platform. "We want it to distinguish itself in its proportions and to develop the package," he says.

To provide the roomy interior, the wheelbase ended up at 126 ins. (320 cm). This is significant because it's longer than any existing model – up 148 ins. (36 cm) on the current MPV, 207 ins. (526 cm) longer than the Mazda6, to prove Mazda is looking at expanding its range into new areas.

Mazda has a thing about access – witness the doors on the RX-8 – so don't dismiss the doors that give the Washu its name (eagle’s wings in Japanese) as entirely unrealistic.

Because the Washu was to be lower than the MPV, Callum decided the doors should be taken into the roof, "GT40-style, but in a contemporary way," he says. The engineering group within Mazda design came up with the concept. "It created a lot of room and is a logical step after the RX-8," he adds.

Joseph Bakaj, head of Mazda research and development and renown for his work on the Mondeo, says, "The engineers are looking at the doors. We know how to do them without adding weight." But he also says the Washu would work with less radical doors.

Apart from its immense roominess, the use of steer-by-wire allows the steering wheel to be stored inside the dashboard when the car is parked, further easing egress, and allowing the driver to choose between distinctly different driving positions: a low sports position and a more relaxed, upright location.

"The Washu is a splendid example of Moray Callum's work," says Mays. "This minivan is aviation-inspired and creates the impression of a hedge-hopping jet. It makes a powerful statement about Mazda design."

Mazda, midway through a production-led revival, is in the throes of defining the next steps, keen that its cars should look utterly different from those of parent Ford, while pushing the idea that Mazdas outside the mainstream should be distinctive.

"It's not a question of what Mazda is going to be like, but rather the rate of evolution, of sustaining the momentum, and defining how much variation we can create in our models," says Callum.

"The new 2, 3, 6 and RX-8 define Mazda as a recognizable brand. The current crop are good cars. They give us the chance to deliver products that our customers have not seen before."

Mazda's idea, and it's hardly original, is to spin off as many derivatives as possible from the existing platforms. The difference is, Mazda is looking for innovation in everything it launches. The RX-8 is the perfect example, but Mazda knows it needs to follow the 4-door sports car with other, equally "segment-busting" models.

R&D boss Bakaj admits he aspires to a more upscale model above the 6.

"We need to establish our credibility in the market before launching something bigger," he says. "When the customers tell us Mazda is the builder of high-quality cars, (that’s the) time to do D- (Mondeo) and E-class (fullsize) cars."

Mays believes he has found the right person to lead the new design charge in Callum. The 45-year-old Scottish-born designer impressed Mays with his international experience, as much as his creativity and management skills.

After graduating from London's RCA in 1982, Callum worked for PSA Peugeot Citroen in Paris and later at Ghia SpA in Turin, where he styled the influential Lagonda Vignale concept. He moved to Detroit in 1995 as chief designer on the Taurus and then had responsibility for the Ford Windstar minivan and the oversized Excursion SUV.

If going from a truck to overseeing the creation of the next MX-5 seems one design step too far, Callum's disparate garage includes an E-Type Jag and a Fiat 124 Spider (in bits), and he drove an MX-5 and then a Porsche Boxster while in Dearborn.

"The MX-5 is a great challenge," he admits. "It's a car on which everyone has an opinion. Whatever you do, you are never going to please everyone. It's become an icon for Mazda, so we intend to remain true to the concept of a simple, lightweight and affordable sports car.

"The new MX-5 is not going to be a different product," he continues. "It's not going to compete with the (Audi) TT or Boxster or (BMW) Z4. It will only be a little bigger to accommodate new safety and technical features."

Ian Callum, design boss at Jaguar Cars, has no qualms about his younger brother’s abilities. "He's smarter than I am, and a better designer," claims the modest Callum senior.

Moray Callum is the first foreigner to run Mazda design, but he is not unique. With the increasing global integration of the Japanese motor industry and to help overcome the historic copying of the Europeans and Americans, many Japanese auto makers have turned to outsiders.

Mitsubishi Motors Corp. brought in Olivier Boulay to head its design efforts, while Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. (Subaru) named Andreas Zapatinas to take charge of advanced design.

Has Callum's gaijin status created problems? "It has more to do with, ‘does he know what he's talking about?’ rather than being a foreigner, especially to the designers," says Callum.

"That would be the same anywhere. My job is to promote design in the company, design's status and its ability to take Mazda forward. I'm enjoying the challenge," he adds, "but it is a challenge. I've never been busier."

One outcome of living in Hiroshima is discovering that Japanese perceive cars differently than Westerners. "It's made me rethink the way I look at cars," admits Callum. "The Japanese stand closer to their cars; they look at the details, rather than the stance or the proportions."

This attention to detail also applies to the interior and the way the Japanese approach surface treatments.

"The Japanese use materials in a more adventurous way," he says. "They aim for a more advanced look and are not frightened to use different grains in the finish."