Stylish, affordable and of high quality - Nargess Shahmanesh-Banks reports on a new automotive design philosophy

This is when you can afford things that have a premium look without the price tag. "We want to steer the image of the brand to deliver more than you actually pay for," Schwarz says. "This value is very contemporary and you can see it reflected in fashion, food and even holidays."

We're looking at the new Micra C+C, a stylish coupé/ convertible with a clever glass roof, designed and built here, which goes on sale on 14 November. The designer says this is a car that "fits into your lifestyle, right down to the fashion you would like to wear".

The C+C is pure fun, pure H&M, about indulging yourself without spending a fortune. In fact, you get a lot for your money. It's the first car in its class to have a music system that uses Digital Signal Processing (DSP) to maintain optimum sound quality from its six speakers with the roof up or down.

The six-speaker system, fitted as standard, changes its equalisation settings to suit the different cabin environments. "We realised there was an opportunity in the market to approach the product in a different way," says the Swiss designer, who has been with Nissan since 1994.

Volkswagen apparently hijacked the term "democratisation of luxury" to define its brand. Nissan set out to put this into practice. A couple of years ago, it took over an old railway station in Paddington to transform into its European design centre.

Schwarz sees the London studio adding value to the overall company. "It's there to capture [the solutions to] European needs and then inject them into our global products. Europe has historically been a trend-setter in terms of style and in defining luxury." Schwarz works with Nissan's other two design centres in California and Japan.

So far, the only production cars to come out of the London studio have been the revised Micra and the C+C. Schwarz hopes that the compact crossover car, codenamed P32L, destined for launch next year and based on the Qashqai concept shown at Geneva last year, will demonstrate London's impact on the brand.

Nissan was the first Japanese car-maker to delve into its heritage and find a unique design identity that reflects modern Japan. Others such as Toyota and, more recently, Honda have followed suit.

Schwarz believes there is a strong spirit within Nissan: "There is constant questioning and the desire to redefine tomorrow's design language." Unlike most of the Germans, Nissan won't go down the rigorous styling route where there is a defined family resemblance. "We don't think it's the right approach for us," Schwarz says "What makes Nissan strong is that each model is very distinctive."

The cars follow the same simplicity of volumes and shapes. "All have very iconic graphic elements on the head and tail lamps, and this is something we want to promote," Schwarz says. "Like a point of exuberance in the middle of the quite pure volume." Yet there has to be a modicum of family likeness. The grille, for one, will have a certain level of consistency that can be adapted to each model.

The business alliance with Renault has been fundamental to the new creativity. It has allowed for a huge reduction in costs in "the non-visible part of the car," as Schwarz puts it. "We can then inject some of the budget into the more visual impact zones."

And Renault's progressive mentality has rubbed off on Nissan. One example is Nissan's openness to ideas from other disciplines like architecture, interior design and theatre. Lighting, for instance, can be altered to change the in-car environment - blue for cool, soft violet for warmth.

Another idea is a new approach to personalising the car (something the Japanese love) which may gain Nissan a niche in Europe. Cars are not necessarily all about driving dynamics, but are perhaps simply a style statement.

The Cube was an exciting car for Nissan. Its unusually minimal box-shape design and effortless interior got mixed reviews, and although it is a top-selling car in Japan, it seems Europe wasn't ready for it.

Wouldn't bringing the car to Europe make a huge statement about the new Nissan? Schwarz is delighted by the question, and with a nod from the press officer at the interview, reveals that a new-generation Cube is coming this way soon. The new model will be different in style but will convey a similar message.

Cars as fashion items? It's not a new idea, but Nissan's price tags could help to create a whole new market.

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