On the way to TTAC’s Southern Tour, I filled some of the gaps in my automotive history by reading Car Wars by Robert Sobel. Written in the same year that Nissan opened its first US plant, a sprawling complex in Smyrna, Car Wars documents the early years of the Detroit-Import wars, starting with the Beetle and ending with the rise of the transplant factories. The book is full of lessons, but its most rattling reminders was that Nissan was the major Japanese automaker during the early days of the Japanese industry. Nearly thirty years after Car Wars was written, Nissan often gets lost in Honda and Toyota’s shadow when it comes to perceptions of the Japanese OEMs. And lately Nissan has fallen off more than a few radar screens for the simple fact that its key products are aging: Sentra, Maxima and Altima were introduced for the 2007 model-year, while Rogue is just a year younger. Together these four models account for over half of Nissan’s monthly volume… and yet despite this aged core lineup, Nissan’s sales (as a brand) are up over 17 percent year-to-date, maintaining the brand’s consistent growth.
And, after touring the Smyrna facility last week, Nissan’s VP for Communications David Reuter told us that this fact was what made him so optimistic about Nissan’s future. If sales are doing this well with product this old, he wondered aloud, what might happen if.. say, models representing 75% of Nissan’s sales volume were replaced in a two-year span? He admitted that one of the brand’s biggest issues was breaking through the Honda-Toyota monopoly on media perceptions of Japanese automakers, and he suggested that a new product blitz was the only way to really accomplish that. I was reminded of the current darling of the mass-market brands, Hyundai, which grew sales steadily with aging and stolid but value-laden products, before replacing its entire lineup with eye-catching new models. Could a fresh batch of new designs do the same for Nissan?
Of course, a lot of that depends on product execution. Hyundai would not have garnered the attention it has if it had replaced its entire lineup with new but dowdy or uninspired models. And on that front the picture is still mixed: critics have been cruel to Nissan’s newest car, the Versa, but consumers have been snapping them up in the first two months of sales. Meanwhile, the brand’s recent niche products (Juke, Murano CC) have received mixed and polarized responses. And Nissan’s got a raft of new technology to play with for its new cars, including a next-gen CVT and its first-ever in-house front-drive hybrid system (look for Bertel to bring you more on that from Japan shortly). And though the brand likely won’t be jumping on the turbocharging bandwagon wholesale, it seems likely that our prayers have been answered and that the Juke’s delightful 1.6 turbo engine will make its way into an SE-R-type vehicle to celebrate the revamped lineup. This couldn’t hurt Nissan’s flagging reputation for sporting mass-market vehicles.
One thing is certain: Nissan may not get a lot of press these days, but the brand has been thriving given where it is in its key product cycles. If the new high-volume models (which Reuter says we’ll learn more about at the Detroit Auto Show) bring some pizzaz back to the brand, it could well be poised to exploit Honda’s recent product weaknesses and Toyota’s battered image. With the right execution, we could find ourselves returning to a time when Toyota and Nissan are once again the Japanese standard-bearers. On the other hand, Detroit isn’t sleeping on the competition the way it once was. And Hyundai will certainly have a few things to say about any company looking to steal its momentum.
So while we wait to learn more about Nissan’s upcoming product blitz, we’re curious to hear your take on the brand’s fortunes. What explains Nissan’s resilience in the face of old product? Do you expect the new products to vault the brand into the “hot” category, or do the downsides of recent products like Versa and Murano CC leave you a bit suspicious? Will Nissan surpass Honda as a leading Japanese brand, or is the Honda-Toyota duopoly cemented in the minds of consumers? What do you hope to see from the next-generation of Nissans? So many questions…
[Disclosure: Nissan bought me lunch when I toured their facilities in Smyrna and Franklin, and I am about to be bought dinner by the company in Seattle, where I will be hearing more about this subject from Director of Product Planning Mark Perry. If you have any questions for Mark, you have a few hours to post them in the comments below]