What Did Nissan Accomplish During Carlos Ghosn's Tenure?

Timothy Cain
by Timothy Cain
what did nissan accomplish during carlos ghosns tenure

We’re weeks, probably months, perhaps years or even decades from learning what went down in Nissan’s Yokohama executive suite over the last few days, weeks, and months.

Nissan’s departed boss, Carlos Ghosn, who has not yet been forced out at Renault – a fact that’s certainly subject to change at any given moment – faces the prospect of prolonged jail time.

On the one hand, the harshest observers will point to CEO Syndrome, an above-the-law belief and a sense of invincibility, that precipitated a turn to horrifying criminal behaviour. At the other end of the spectrum, there will be others who see a coordinated corporate coup d’état.

Regardless of where the early verdicts land, based as they typically are on limited information and scant evidence, on this all analysts can agree: Nissan’s turnaround during Ghosn’s 19-year tenure was monumental.

These are the numbers behind the transformation.

Start with the U.S. picture. By 1998, the year before Ghosn became COO at Nissan, the brand’s U.S. market share fell below 4 percent after nearly two decades above that mark. From Nissan’s peak of 830,767 sales in 1985 (according to CarSalesBase), U.S. volume had fallen by a third. During the mid-90s alone, from 1994 to 1998, Nissan’s U.S. volume tumbled by more than a fifth.

By 2003, three years after Ghosn became Nissan president and two years after being named CEO, Nissan market share was once again back above 4 percent. In fact, Nissan’s U.S. market share increased in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, and in 10 of the following 12 years. The surge culminated in better than 8 percent U.S. market share in 2016 and 2017, fulfilling Ghosn’s very publicly stated 2011 goal. Nissan reported 1,440,049 U.S. sales in 2017 (plus another 153,415 Infinitis.) That’s a 258-percent increase from the end of the pre-Ghosn area.

Granted, Ghosn’s insatiable quest for market share wasn’t always matched by a commensurate increase in Nissan profits. Recent cutbacks on the aggressive discounts that were required to boost market share, for example, resulted in a predictable sales downturn and a steep drop in Nissan profits.

But Nissan’s U.S. steady rise up the U.S. ranks, which was accompanied by improvements around the globe as Nissan sales rose 54 percent from a record high of 3.77 million in fiscal year 2007 to 5.79 million in 2018, wasn’t something that developed by discounts alone. Nissan’s product offensive during the Ghosn era led to a large SUV/crossover lineup in time for an SUV-crazed era; high-volume, top-tier contenders in categories as varied as the subcompact, midsize sedan, and midsize pickup categories; and eye-catching design risks in initially underpopulated segments such as the Nissan Murano and Nissan Juke.

It’s easy in this age of sedan malaise, for example, to forget the impact Nissan had on America’s midsize car category when an upsized and powered-up Altima arrived for the 2002 model year. U.S. Altima volume jumped 72 percent between 2001 and 2005. Prior to 2006, Nissan wasn’t playing in the subcompact sandbox. But the Versa became America’s top-selling subcompact, adding 144,528 sales to the U.S. sales ledger in its best year to date. When Nissan introduced the outlandish first-gen Murano in late 2002, Ford hadn’t yet thought up the Edge and Subaru hadn’t enlarged the Outback to wagon-on-steroids proportions. But Nissan quickly had a hit on its hands, selling more than 56,000 Muranos in its first full year and averaging over 60,000 annual Murano sales during the last decade.

Heading into 2002, Nissan’s U.S. lineup consisted of only eight nameplates: 350Z, Altima, Maxima, Sentra on the car side; Frontier, Pathfinder, Quest, and Xterra on the light-truck side. By the time of economic collapse, Nissan was still pushing those models but had added the GT-R, Versa, Armada, Murano, Rogue, and Titan. Save for the Quest and an engine change resulting in the renamed 370Z, those models all exist today, along with the Kicks, Leaf, Rogue Sport, and a pair of commercial vans.

Carlos Ghosn will likely live to regret many of his life choices. But he certainly isn’t guilty of waiting around to make them.

[Images: Nissan]

Timothy Cain is a contributing analyst at The Truth About Cars and Driving.ca and the founder and former editor of GoodCarBadCar.net. Follow on Twitter @timcaincars and Instagram.

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  • Hunter Ah California. They've been praying for water for years, and now that it's here they don't know what to do with it.
  • FreedMike I think this illustrates a bit of Truth About PHEVs: it's hard to see where they "fit." On paper, they make sense because they're the "best of both worlds." Yes, if you commute 20-30 miles a day, you can generally make it on electric power only, and yes, if you're on a 500-mile road trip, you don't have to worry about range. But what percentage of buyers has a 20-mile commute, or takes 500-mile road trips? Meanwhile, PHEVs are more expensive than hybrids, and generally don't offer the performance of a BEV (though the RAV4 PHEV is a first class sleeper). Seems this propulsion type "works" for a fairly narrow slice of buyers, which explains why PHEV sales haven't been all that great. Speaking for my own situation only, assuming I had a place to plug in every night, and wanted something that ran on as little gas as possible, I'd just "go electric" - I'm a speed nut, and when it comes to going fast, EVs are awfully hard to beat. If I was into hypermiling, I'd just go with a hybrid. Of course, your situation might vary, and if a PHEV fits it, then by all means, buy one. But the market failure of PHEVs tells me they don't really fit a lot of buyers' situations. Perhaps that will change as charging infrastructure gets built out, but I just don't see a lot of growth in PHEVs.
  • Kwik_Shift Thank you for this. I always wanted get involved with racing, but nothing happening locally.
  • Arthur Dailey Love the Abe Rothstein tribute suits. Too bad about the car. Seems to have been well loved for most of its life.
  • K. R. Worth noting that the climate control is shared with (donated to) the Audi 5000 of the mid-late 1980s.