Nissan Unveils Z, Truck, and SE-R

With the financial picture at Nissan brightening, Japan’s third-largest automaker is using this week’s Detroit auto show as a sort of “we told you so” to the naysayers who predicted the company’s demise as recently as a year ago.

Today, Nissan unveiled three vehicles it hopes will propel its recovery to the next level of profitability – and respectability.

Back in October, you’ll recall, reported that Nissan was moving toward its profitability goals ordered by Renault-appointed CEO Carlos Ghosn. It reported earnings of $1.58 billion for the first six months of its fiscal year (which ends March 31) — the best results the company has had in 10 years.

The reason for the rebound? Most of the company’s latest product offerings have been well received by the marketplace, in particular its new truck offerings, such as the Frontier pickup and Xterra sport-ute. Additionally, the new Maxima and Sentra have been selling well.

Today’s handful of concept and production cars would seem to indicate that the recovery isn’t over until Nissan says it over. Get more on the new Z and full-size truck concepts and the new SE-R here, and come back to all week long for more on the 2001 North American International Auto Show.

Return of the Z

videoWhen Nissan first showed its retro Z concept at the Detroit auto show in 1999, skeptics were more numerous than the number of zeros in Nissan’s big pile of debt. Not only was the company out of money – they’d walked away from a huge critical success when they axed the last 300ZX.

Now, there are fewer doubters. Nissan is back in the black, and the most concrete example of the Revival Plan’s righteousness could be the new Z Concept, a second example of what the company intends to produce for introduction in mid-2002.

2001 Nissan Z Concept

The new vehicle takes a different styling direction than the previous retro-themed concept. It takes the silhouette of the former 300ZX and melds it with that of the Porsche 911. Polygonal taillamps and an aluminum-themed interior with pod-style gauges make the new concept more futuristic than nostalgic. The effort is a combined one between Nissan’s design studios in California and Japan, with the lead themes developed in America.

The powertrain is a 3.5-liter V-6, pumping out more than 260 horsepower through either a six-speed manual transmission or a five-speed automatic gearbox. Given the former, the rear-drive Z will be able to launch itself to 60 mph in less than 6.0 seconds, Nissan says.

The concept’s 20-inch wheels front and rear will likely be downsized to earthly proportions. Also downsized – if you consider the car the successor to the 300ZX – is the price tag. Nissan says the base price of the 2003 Nissan Z will come in under $30,000.

Alpha-T: Rolling idea lab

Nissan Alpha-T Concept

Nissan is headed to Mississippi, but the spacey concept shown at Detroit is thought to be several steps away from the new product to be built in the new plant in Canton, Miss., outside the state capital of Jackson.

The Alpha- T concept, Nissan says, is inspired by the look of power tools. The four-door concept (the doors open suicide-style, a term automakers just hate) points to the direction Nissan believes the full-size truck market to be headed – more toward functionality.

Still, they’re hedging their bets, calling the Alpha- T a “radical styling exercise” meant to figure out exactly what buyers want from a full-size Nissan. “The áT concept pushes the envelope of contemporary pickup truck styling,” says Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn in a public statement.

The look is certain to draw comparison with everything from Isuzu concepts (Nissan’s designer Shiro Nakamura came from Isuzu) to lunar rover vehicles. The sheetmetal is planar, accented by deep grey geometric inserts. The roof has several movable glass sections; the tailgate lowers to near ground level for better bed access.

The vehicle is powered by a 4.5-liter V-8 with 300 horsepower, through a four-speed electronically controlled automatic. Four-wheel-drive is an integral part of the concept. Drivers might be interested to find the áT concept has 22.5-inch wheels and four-wheel disc brakes, neither a common feature in today’s full-size trucks.

Nissan is serious about building some full-size truck, whether it’s this concept or something more conservative in nature. The new assembly plant for the truck is expected to be up and running in 2003, and the company is committed to making an impact in the segment. "This is one of the most profitable segments in the market," said Carlos Ghosn, Nissan president, told reporters during the announcement. "We recognize that with more competition coming, this profitability will erode, but still it will be significant. That’s why we’re getting into it."

Sentra SE-R, redux

2002 Nissan Sentra SE-R video

Enthusiasts shed a tear a few years back when Nissan finally axed the Sentra SE-R, a potent performance machine in its first edition (1991-1994) that won numerous magazine awards and generally made life respectable at the thin end of the wallet.

Now Nissan is set to reclaim the mantle it once held with a four-door SE-R based on the current Sentra. Adding two doors to the equation might seem like heresy to some, but the Sentra’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder engines sound just about right. Whether you order the 170-hp SE-R or the 180-horsepower SE-R Spec V, Nissan hopes you’ll be reminded of the glory days when it fielded some of the most performance-minded machinery coming out of Japan.

The 180-hp SE-R Spec V will also come with a six-speed manual gearbox and a limited-slip differential. So equipped, Nissan is estimating that the car will scoot to 60 mph in about 7.0 seconds. Our guess, from limited driving in Arizona a few months back, is that the standard 170-hp SE-R won’t be far behind, even with its standard five-speed manual (a four-speed automatic is optional on this version as well). The SE-R also wears 195/55R-16 tires, while the Spec V gets 215/45ZR-17s. Four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock control are standard on both models, as are dual front and side airbags.

Inside, the new SE-R gets a special cloth interior with metal-colored faces on its gauges, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshift knob, and an overhead console. The Spec V goes way out there on the styling edge with vivid red inserts in the black sport bucket seats. On either model, a 280-watt Rockford Fosgate sound system with a six-disc CD changer can be ordered.

The new SE-R remains a front-driver, and Nissan officials say the base version will come in under $20,000. That should please the bargain-minded guys who want aftermarket-style performance and looks without actually having to wrench it themselves.

For all our Detroit 2001 coverage, click here.

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