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Watch Out for Nissan

Nissan sends a message to its worldwide competitors with a showing of its global product strength.

When Nissan invited us — along with 500 other media and analysts in 12 groups from 30 countries — to a San Francisco “Nissan 360” event to showcase its global product line, we frankly wondered why. But we hopped aboard partly because the invitation also promised a rich selection of concepts, technologies and soonto- arrive ’05s.

Our goal is to provide a global perspective of our company,” said Executive Vice President Tadao Takahashi in his opening remarks. “But ‘360’ also indicates Nissan has come full circle as a company — we’re back as one of the world’s leading automakers.”

Nissan will enter the hybrid race with 100,000 copies of this Altima hybrid that uses Nissan’s own Atkinson-cycle engine mated to Toyota’s hybrid drive system.

Mr. Takahashi pointed out that Nissan sells more than three million vehicles built in 18 countries through 190 operations and has three R&D and six design centers employing 16,300 engineers and 800 designers worldwide. It has invested $1 billion in a 50 percent stake in Dongfeng Motors, China’s third largest automaker (and is building Nissan Sunnys there at an initial rate of 150K a year) and another $190 million in Siam-Nissan Motors in Thailand.

This fiscal year will see nine all-new Nissan vehicles launched worldwide, to be followed by 28 more in the next two years toward a 2007 goal of 4.2 million annual sales, including more than a million each in the U.S. and Japan and 500K in China. If that isn’t scary enough, consider that — just five years since its near bankrupcy and subsequent rescue by Renault — the company has erased its debt and achieved record profits for its fiscal year 2003 (ending March 31, 2004) with an 11.1 percent margin and 21.1 percent return on investment.

Five years ago, Nissan had 24 vehicle platforms globally with only one accounting for more than 300K units. By next March 31, it will have 15 platforms, with four at more than 400K units each and two at over a million (counting Renault). Its 4-cylinder engines meet ultra low emission standards in Japan and super ultra low emissions levels in the U.S.; it was first to develop a continuously variable transmission (CVT) suitable for large V-6 engines; and it is already leasing small numbers of X-Trail fuel cell vehicles (FCV) to fleet customers in Japan.

Nissan 360 featured 70 drive and 30 display vehicles, plus 11 technical displays and the first publicly shown prototype of the company’s 2007 Altima Hybrid, powered by a unique combination of its own 2.5L 4-cylinder engine and a Toyota-supplied full hybrid system. Also available was an X-Trail (compact SUV) FCV demonstrating Nissan’s current level of fuel cell technology. Like others we’ve experienced, it was smooth but typically tepid in performance and a bit noisy. Interesting concepts included Serenity, a luxo-sport sedan/minivan crossover; Actic, a modular-interior mini- Murano compact SUV with matching trailer; Triant, a gullwing-doored all-wheeld-drive performance sport wagon; and M45 Concept, which previewed the next 4.5L DOHC V-8- powered Infiniti flagship luxury sedan, complete with production-bound Lane Departure Warning System (LDW), active control rear suspension and AFS headlights.

Altima Hybrid

In Sept., 2002, Nissan and Toyota signed an agreement that Nissan will produce 100,000 gas-electric hybrids within a five-year period with Toyota supplying hybrid components, including the motor, transaxle, battery, inverter and control unit. Unveiled June 2, 2004 (the day we were there), less than two years following that agreement, this early prototype was a trifle crude but provided an effective demonstration of the intent, which is V-6 performance with 4-cyl. compact economy. Like Toyota’s, Nissan’s version of Synergy Drive is capable of running on its NiMH battery only for a short distance at low speeds. Given its larger, more powerful engine, we found it quicker, more responsive and more fun than Toyota’s mild-mannered Prius, but needing further development in smoothness and refinement.

2005 New Products

Nissan’s new mid-size trucks — Frontier pickup, Pathfinder SUV and compact Xterra SUV — share shorter versions of Nissan’s FAlpha truck platform introduced last year under the full-size Nissan Titan and Armada and Infiniti QX56. The frames share a fully boxed rail backbone with common front sections, variable-length middle sections depending on wheelbase and rear sections tailored to specific rear suspensions. All three are larger than previous models and share an all-new DOHC 4.0L V-6 good for 270 hp and 291 lb-ft of torque.

Nissan adds a performance SE-R version of its Altima for 2005, with a more powerful V-6, tuned suspension and 18- in. speed-rated tires on 18-in. alloy wheels.
One other significant new product is a higher- performance SE-R version of the compact Altima. All ’05 Altimas get a mild facelift, new wheels and higher quality interiors (new instrument panel, console, trim finishes, seat materials and headliner), five more horsepower from their available 3.5L DOHC 24-valve V-6 and new features including an available DVD-based navigation system. The SE-R adds (TBD) more horses to the 250-hp V-6, performance-tuned suspension and 225/45R18 Y-speed rated tires on 18-in. wheels, plus unique front and rear fascias, rear spoiler and large dual exhaust outlets. Completing the package inside are leathertrimmed sport seats, dark chrome trim and a 350Z-style center-mounted gauge pod.

U.S.-Bound Minicar?

Gen Y may see aversion of the 4-door Cube microvan coming to the U.S. to compete against the Scion xB.
Among the many global products present were some that Nissan may be considering as U.S.-market additions. In particular, the company wants a “cool” inexpensive entry to battle Toyota’s Scions, Honda’s Element and others in the works for image-conscious youthful buyers. We sampled one likely candidate, a 4-door microvan appropriately named Cube and much better-looking, we think, than either the Scion xB or the ultra-homely Element. The 147-in., 2,360-lb., 97-hp Cube (in its second generation) has proven popular in Japan since its 1998 introduction, and there’s a seven-in. longer, roomier version called, yes, Cube Cubic.

Another potential candidate could be a version of the Japan-market March. This stylish little package was represented there by a sport-tuned hatchback coupe version hopped up to a sizzling 107-hp by Nissan Affiliate Autech Japan Inc. Just 145.5-in. long and a svelte 2,050-lb., it was surprisingly lively. More impressive still was the 146-in., 2,400- lb., 1.5L turbodiesel-powered Euro-market Micra, which was so quiet we didn’t realize at first it was a diesel and so torquey it performed like a V-6. Nissan’s best-seller in Europe, it was also amazingly comfy and wellequipped for its modest size and price range. Still, we’re betting on the Cubic.

Nissan’s global tagline, used in every market, is SHIFT__. Its message to media, customers and competitors — like that of Nissan 360 — is due notice for all to SHIFT their perceptions of this aggressively ambitious new iteration of Japan’s number two automaker.

Bright Ideas

Altima Hybrid

Using Toyota’s highly developed componentry, Nissan intends to one-up the Prius in performance and Honda’s coming V-6 Accord hybrid in economy. Why invest billions in hybrid design and development if you can purchase the industry’s best system from your competitor?

Lane Departure Warning System (LDW)

Using a small camera, a speed sensor and a warning buzzer, it alerts drivers of an unintended movement out of their intended lane. An industry first, its likely to hit the market in 2005, probably on a new Infiniti M45 flagship sedan.

F-Alpha Truck Platform

Who else has an architecture so flexible that it can support three full-size trucks and two mid-size trucks and a compact SUV with V-6 and V-8 engines and both solid-axle leaf spring and double-wishbone coil spring independent rear suspensions?

 Altima Upgrade

Reacting to well-founded criticism that the lively and otherwise attractive Altima compact launched in 2002 was flawed by a low-quality interior, Nissan steps up for ’05 with new higher-quality instrument panel, console, trim finishes, seat materials and headliner.

Cube Cubic

Among the inexpensive minicars shown at Nissan 360, the longer Cubic version of the stylishly boxy Cube is our choice for U.S. importation as soon as it can be readied. Its youthappeal cool look and personality put the rival Scion xB and Honda Element on the trailer.

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