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Don't Believe the Hype

I recently had the unfortunate experience to drive a Nissan X-Terra for a week.

I recently had the unfortunate experience to drive a Nissan X-Terra for a week. I'm not going to go into great raving admonitions over it, but let me just defend my dislike of the vehicle with a simple point: As I sat in the center of the drivers' seat, the steering wheel was not centered in front of my chest. (Needless to say, this made driving the vehicle even more uncomfortable than listening to the dash rattle, turning up the stereo loud enough to drown out the considerable engine/road noise, and straining with the wheel to keep the vibrating vehicle from skirting off the freeway.) Apparently, however, those credible salespeople (or was it the editors?) at Motor Trend decided that the X-Terra is the "Sport/Utility of the Year." My suggestion to the design engineers at Nissan is to actually use those calipers on top of that trophy when you put together the second-generation version of the truck.

But my aim here is not to just drag the X-Terra through the mud (in its defense, a task that it does accomplish quite well), but to shed some light on the nature of the industry right now. I got tricked into writing about the X-Terra for much the same reason that people are being tricked into buying it. Nissan's sales pitch: "An SUV-like SUV!" Now I figured this declaration would manifest itself into something like the old Jeep Wagoneer that my buddy Phil used to haul his band's gear around in. Now that was a very cool ride. Besides, I thought, I am the target demographic for the X-Terra.

So here's what happened before I got behind the wheel (more or less)...

Part one: I called up Nissan's PR man and got a basic debriefing at an SAE dinner. Some Nissan engineers explained that they went out to trail heads and beaches and looked at what cool young people were driving and got a big surprise—they weren't driving SUVs (proving that my generation may be smarter than the one that hatched us). No, my brethren are driving beat-up old station wagons, pickups with homemade storage racks, and other such beaters. Kind of like my old Tercel 4wd wagon.

Part two: On the heels of my newfound love for all things X-Terra, I went down to Smyrna to check out the most productive assembly plant in the U.S. for the first time. My reaction: Impressive to say the least. Plus the body shop was using some lean approaches to reduce material handling, increase capacity and ensure better quality, all without using a lot more floor space. "This was going to be a good story," (or so) I thought.

Part three: I got my test drive in the X-Terra. Well, you heard my tirade on that in the first paragraph.

So what happened here? Let me preference my explanation by mentioning a ridiculously insightful fact that often gets bandied about (but not fully understood) when marketing trolls talk about "Generation X." (FYI, I don't go around screaming my identification with that letter.) We have no brand loyalty when it comes to vehicles. And there is a good reason for this fact. We've grown up with a lot of crappy cars and a lot of overblown, ridiculous marketing. (Remember Ricardo Montelban and the Cordoba?) Sure, there will always be some lemmings that rush out and buy anything that you paint bright yellow and put a roof rack on. But the bottom line is that quality sells and quality is not particularly evident in the aforementioned big yellow truck that my girlfriend remarked "looks like a short school bus."

But before you go filleting my Smyrna friends (I hope they're still amicable after this), it's important to mention that the lack of quality in the X-Terra is predominantly in design, rather than build quality. (And as far as I'm concerned, build quality is irrelevant without a good design to start with.) A lot of what "design quality" is has to do with value. Vehicles with $25K window stickers shouldn't have a rats' nest under the hood or cheap, hard plastic dashboards—the market dictates this. Common sense, however says that for the price of an X-Terra, I could buy at least 10 old beater pickups and probably 14 cool old station wagons. You can bet that all those kids that "inspired" the X-Terra are not lost on that point.

Truth is, I don't know how the X-Terra came to be such a disappointing vehicle. Overcapacity at Smyrna caused them to rush a half-baked design into production? Marketing trolls decided that this was what "the people" wanted and then made the engineers slop it together against their will? A lack of proper financing from a cash-strapped company didn't allow them to do a good idea the right way?

Much has been made in this industry lately about capturing the youth market and harnessing creative young talent. Maybe I'm just plain wrong about the X-Terra, but instinct tells me that it's a failure on both of those levels. It's not a youth product and it's not the result of creative thinking. X-Terra is merely the clichéd sizzle without the steak. Believe me when I tell you, my generation has grown up being fed plenty of both and we know how to discern one from the other.

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