Nissan Does a 360

April 30, 2008
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It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly nine years since Carlos Ghosn made his arrival in Tokyo, the multi-pedigreed gaijin who was going to show the Japanese how to run their auto industry. Dispatched by Renault to take over the troubled Asian automaker Nissan, Ghosn outlined an aggressive – to many, outrageous – set of plans to turn the dying Japanese marque around.

Now, almost a decade later, few question Ghosn’s pronouncements, and with good reason. Sure, there’ve been a few hiccups along the way, but these days, Nissan is one of the world’s healthiest and most profitable auto companies. It delivers financial returns only Porsche can rival. And combined with its French alliance partner, the Nissan-Renault juggernaut last year sold a combined 3.7 million cars and trucks, with seemingly little reason to believe it’s about to lose stride.

Those are strong words for a journalist by nature skeptical, but then again, I’m also wrapping up three days of meetings with senior Nissan executives, combined with an opportunity to drive somewhere north of 50 different Nissan and Infiniti brand products from around the world.

The program, dubbed Nissan 360, has provided an unusually candid, close-up look at the company’s products and strategies. And I mean candid, with several executives offering insight into the less-than-stellar launch of the big Titan pickup, one of a few setbacks the automaker has experienced in recent years.

(The Titan, you may know, will continue, though its next iteration will be based upon Chrysler’s big Ram, and will be built for Nissan by the U.S. maker. The next full-sized Infiniti QX will be built in Japan, while it’s still unclear whether the future Nissan Armada will continue to be produced in Canton, Mississippi, or overseas. That Southern plant will now be used as a base for Nissan’s aggressive plans for the light commercial vehicle market.)

What’s impressive about the global Nissan lineup is its “diversity,” in the terse explanation of design chief Shiro Nakamura. Under Ghosn, the automaker has slashed the number of vehicle “architectures” – what used to be called platforms – it uses. There are now just five for passenger cars and crossovers. Yet the visual distinction is enormous. Consider that a flood of products, including the Nissan Versa, Note, Cube (the little crossover shown above), Livina, and Bluebird Selfi – never mind several Renault offerings - come off the same B-platform.

Why does that matter? Because by sharing common components among many different models, Nissan can sharply reduce parts costs – and increase manufacturing flexibility. But Shiro-san’s team makes sure each of these individual models meets the desires of each regional market. It’s the antithesis of the look-alike, or badge-engineered, product strategy that got Detroit in so much trouble back in the 1980s.

Ghosn’s fanatic focus on cost, meanwhile, is helping Nissan weather the potentially huge crisis triggered by the current run-up in oil prices. True, it’s struggling a bit in the truck market right now, “But we make more money on a [minicar] like Versa than some folks make on their big pickups,” suggested VP Larry Dominique. We’d love to see the numbers, but if he’s on target, it means Nissan should do quite well, thank you, even with consumers around the world downsizing fast.

Don’t expect Nissan to displace its archrival Toyota any time soon. There’s a healthy and much-needed respect, even fear, of the bigger maker’s assets and capabilities. But Nissan isn’t setting back and letting Toyota dominate, much as Ford long relished its No. 2 status in the United States.

That’s most apparent in Nissan’s admittedly late push into green machines. The maker had to sidle up to Toyota to license the rival’s hybrid technology, used in the nearly invisible Altima Hybrid. But a completely new HEV system will debut by decade’s end. And that’s only the beginning. Nissan is betting big on pure electric power, something I will touch on in another report from the Nissan 360 conference.

With the Infiniti brand finally staging its global rollout, the next few years will be challenging and promising ones for Nissan. As the current oil crisis underscores, things have a way of changing fast – and unpredictably – and Nissan’s long-term success is by no means guaranteed, but if the Nissan 360 program is any indication, it suggests the company is clearly on the right track.

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