How a Star Designer Plans to Take on BMW With $25,000 Sedans

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Kazutoshi Mizuno
Kazutoshi Mizuno, chief operating officer of Haitec Japan Co., a unit of Yulon Motor Co. He's developing models for Yulon Motor Co.'s Luxgen brand with 1.5 to 2-liter turbo-charged engines that will debut in three to four years. Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloonberg

The man who helped Nissan Motor Co. create hit cars including the supercar nicknamed “Godzilla” by its fans unveiled his first model since leaving the Japanese automaker.

Kazutoshi Mizuno, 63, chief engineer and program director behind the Nissan GT-R, joined Taiwan’s Yulon Group last year after being promised a free hand to create cars that can compete with Germany’s premium brands. The facelift of the U6 sport utility vehicle under Yulon’s Luxgen brand was unveiled today, the first model to be rolled out under Mizuno’s supervision.

“I’m not a gambler,” Mizuno said in an interview in Atsugi, near Tokyo last month. “I won’t start a fight unless I’m 100 percent sure I’m going to win.”

At Nissan, Chief Executive Officer Carlos Ghosn had handpicked Mizuno to lead the revival of the Skyline GT-R series. He repaid the trust with a coupe that matched the Ferrari 458 Italia and Porsche 911 Turbo in power at half the price. The GT-R secured its place in popular culture with starring roles in the movie “2 Fast 2 Furious” and Sony Playstation’s “Gran Turismo” video game.

Yulon Group, founded in 1951 by Ching-ling Yen, a Chinese industrialist who moved to Taiwan from the mainland three years earlier, will be looking for the same magic touch from Mizuno.

The automaker started making Nissan cars under license more than five decades ago and created the Luxgen brand in 2009. It now offers five models and sold about 69,000 Luxgen vehicles last year, most of them in China.

“He will bring the much-needed expertise to take Yulon to the next level,” said Takeshi Miyao, an auto analyst at researcher Carnorama in Tokyo. “Even so, there aren’t many cases where an individual star designer revolutionized the whole company.”

Taiwanese Luxury

Mizuno plans to develop new cars for Luxgen featuring 1.5 to 2-liter turbo-charged engines and offer them at about 3 million yen ($25,000), lower than competing German brands, he said. The cars will debut in three years, he said, declining to give more details.

Yulon Motor Co. on Wednesday unveiled two variants of its SUV U6 Turbo Eco Hyper. The models’ engine power has been boosted by as much as 13 percent and fuel efficiency has improved by about 12 percent, according to an e-mailed statement.

Shares of Yulon Motor fell 0.7 percent to NT$41.45 at the close in Taipei, while the benchmark Taiwan Stock Exchange Weighted Index declined 0.7 percent.

Others have tried to take on Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, Daimler AG and Volkswagen AG’s Audi.

In China, Qoros Automotive Co. appointed a former General Motors Co. executive to run the company after struggling to boost its sales. The Shanghai-based automaker’s cars were created under Gert Hildebrand, a former BMW designer who oversaw Mini’s resurgence.

Insulting Colleague

Mizuno joined Nissan’s R&D department in 1972 when he was 20 after completing vocational high school. After three years, he was sent to work at a Nissan dealership because, Mizuno said, he insulted a senior colleague. An encounter with a handicapped customer, who depended on his car to get around, taught him to put the needs of a user first, Mizuno said.

“I realized we make cars for our customers not for our bosses,” said Mizuno, who never listens to music while he drives so that he can hear the engine noise.

He went on to help develop cars including the Primera sedan and Z33 Fairlady Z sportscar before Ghosn handpicked him in 2003 for the GT-R project.

Mizuno said he expects to repeat his success at Yulon by combining Japan’s advanced technology with Taiwan’s qualified workforce and cheaper labor costs.

“Japanese automakers have lost their way after the bursting of the asset bubble in the 1990s, pursuing only discounts and value for money,” he said. “I want to challenge the European premium brands in the most competitive segments.”

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