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Nissan Faces The Future

There are massive changes being driven in the global auto industry as companies work to meet customers' needs. Nissan is gaining traction in its efforts to address these requirements.

There is an array of vehicles that Nissan offers in various markets-Japan, in particular-that are significantly smaller than those that are common on American roads. Consider, for example, the Moco, which measures 133.7-in. long, 62.6-in. high, 58.1-in. wide, has a wheelbase of 92.9 in. and features a 54-hp, 0.66-liter three-cylinder engine (it is actually built for Nissan by Suzuki Motor Corp.; while it isn't a quid pro quo per se, it is worth noting that Nissan provides the Frontier pickup and Serena minivan to Suzuki). There is the Micra, which Nissan builds in its Sunderland, UK, plant for sale in European markets; it is Nissan's best-selling car on the continent. The Micra (there is a Japanese version named the March) is based on the company's B-platform. It is powered by a 1.5-liter turbo-diesel-a two-cylinder engine. The Micra is also diminutive, though larger than the Moco: 147-in. long, 60.6-in. high, 65.3-in. wide, and with a wheelbase of 95.6 in. The Micra, in a combined driving cycle, is said to have a fuel efficiency of 4.7 liters/100 km-or 50 mpg. Now on its third generation (and the first platform shared within the Renault-Nissan Alliance, which goes to underline the appeal of the platform; it is also used for the Nissan Versa), the Micra is one of the most nicely appointed, well-handling vehicles I've had the opportunity to drive-even as compared with vehicles far grander in size and price. (It should be noted that the Micra starts at vgt6 £7,495 in the UK, or for about $14,800 U.S., which goes to show that in a market where small is the norm, prices can be higher for smaller cars, as, undoubtedly, are the expectations of the consumers.)

With the rise in fuel prices in the U.S. (actually it is occurring around the world, but like politics, all gas pumps are local), sales
of Nissan's light trucks aren't fairing well. According to Autodata Corp. (Woodcliff, NJ), through April '08 Nissan North America (NNA) light truck sales were down 9.7% compared with the same period in '07. Sales of vehicles including the Titan pickup and the Armada SUV are sinking. Meanwhile, car sales are up 5%, which is an exceedingly solid showing in an overall anemic market.

Getting Global? So, because there are small cars already existing within the Nissan portfolio, and because the U.S. market seems as though it is looking for more fuel-efficient products (e.g., 50 mpg), isn't it a matter of flipping the proverbial switch (or of adding a few shifts in places like Sunderland) such that Nissan can bring in some of this product? It is not-as you might expect-so simple.

Larry Dominique, vice president of Product Planning for NNA, explains, "There is more opportunity for global vehicles"-as in those like the Micra (he's not so sure about the Moco, given that it is truly a mini car "The mini car segment doesn't exist in the U.S.")-"but because of the unique specs in the U.S., if a vehicle has been designed for Japan or Europe, it isn't so easy to make the modifications necessary to bring it to the U.S." He adds, "If we design something from the ground up, we can include U.S., European, and Japanese specs. A good example is the Versa-which is the Tiidia in other markets. It was designed with all markets in mind, so it was very easy to bring it to the U.S."

Dominique explains, "We are a global company and will do global products when they make sense-but only when they make sense."

More Than Fuel Efficiency. And making sense in the U.S. market isn't only about fuel efficiency. "When you look at American consumers and their purchasing habits, they are very different than in Japan. There are some overlaps and some differences with Europe." So even a global car must have regional tailoring. Dominique says, for example, that there is a D-platform vehicle, the Teana, that Nissan launched in June, 2008, for the eastern European market, including Russia, the Ukraine, and Kazakhstan (a facility in St. Petersburg, Russia, is to start producing the car for that market in 2009; the vehicle is currently built in Nissan's plant in Kyushu, Japan). The Altima manufactured in the U.S. (in Smyrna, TN, and Canton, MS) for the U.S. market is also a D-platform vehicle. Both cars are approximately the same size (the Altima is 189.8-in. long and 70.7-in. wide; the Teana is 190.9-in. long and 70.6-in. wide). "We are looking at how much of an overlap there is between these different markets. Could we have one vehicle with, say, ornamentation differences?" he asks, rhetorically, then goes on to point out that there would be global synergies from both investment and manufacturing standpoints with a common vehicle. Given that Nissan and luxury marque Infiniti have executed a platform strategy consisting of six platforms, each of which is used as the basis of multiple vehicles-with the exception of one, the PM platform, which is presently used only for the Nissan GT-R-, it is fairly clear that stretching the commonality between vehicles and markets is a likely approach.

Nissan is in the midst of a five-year business plan called "Nissan GT 2012," which was initiated on April 1, 2008, and is scheduled to run through March 13, 2013. There are three "corporate commitments," one of which is: "Zero-emission vehicle leadership: Nissan will introduce an all-electric vehicle in the U.S. and Japan in 2010 and then mass market vehicles to consumers globally in 2012."

Electric Opportunity. Given that electric vehicles (EVs) didn't have a stellar run in the U.S., how does Dominique feel about the market potential going forward? First of all, he points out that one of the problems with some of the earlier EVs (think, for example of General Motors EV1) was that they weren't particularly practical from the standpoint of passenger and cargo room and range. The early batteries took a considerable amount of time to recharge and then decayed over time. Dominique suggests, "The new lithium-ion batteries with quick recharge and better energy density are more practical." Nissan is supporting this through a joint venture with NEC Corp. of Japan. They've undertaken the construction of a plant for lithium-ion battery production at Nissan's facility in Zama, Japan, that has a start-of-production date of 2009; the joint-venture company is investing $114.6-million in the facility that has an initial capacity of 13,000 units, going to 65,000 units. According to the joint-venture company, Automotive Energy Supply Corp., the batteries are said to have "twice the electric power compared to conventional nickel-metal hydride batteries" and have "been validated to be safe, demonstrating high-performance qualities on average runs of more than 100,000 km."

Dominique admits that initially, EVs will have a "small percentage of the U.S. market," on the order of 15 to 20%, primarily those in urban environments with high density, such as Los Angeles or Atlanta. He suggests that there will need to be more than just vehicle manufacturers involved, that power companies and governments will need to provide infrastructure and support to move customers to zero-emissions vehicles.

Big Endures. Still, there is a considerable percentage of the market that will continue to buy full-size vehicles-including pickups and SUVs. He suggests that full-size truck sales will benefit from the introduction of diesels-it may not be that diesels will increase sales, but at least ameliorate the downward trend. Not only do diesels provide better fuel efficiency, but Dominique points out that the residual values tend to be better.

"Consumers are asking for a solution to fuel economy. It is up to us to deliver on those kinds of responses," he says, but points out that they need to be very cognizant of the Nissan and Infiniti positions in the market: "Our DNA has a performance element in it, and we don't want to lose it. But," he acknowledges, "it is relative. A Versa is not a land-speed record from 0 to 60, but it has great acceleration and good performance for a B-platform vehicle. In any class we are competing in we want to make sure that performance is there."

So whether it's an EV, diesel, direct-injected gasoline engine, or a turbo-charged engine, there is a fine balance between providing the economies that consumers want and the performance they expect.