DETROIT AUTO SHOW -- 2003

Nissan storms Detroit

Originally published: Jan. 13, 2003

DETROIT -- Carlos Ghosn and his Team Nissan last week stormed onto the Big 3's home turf with one of the most significant slates of market-ready vehicles ever unveiled by an import brand at the Detroit auto show.

So much for the image of deferential, soft-stepping Japanese.

Over the course of three media days capped by the unveiling of a massive pickup truck aimed squarely at the Big 3's stronghold, Nissan/Infiniti showed four new or redesigned production vehicles targeted to yield a combined volume of some 300,000 units a year.

The Nissan splash in Detroit underscored the new confidence of a Japanese automaker in the post-trade-war auto industry.

The big Titan pickup and a new, larger minivan promise to yield further market-share gains for Nissan against the Big 3. Despite weaker truck sales, Nissan gained 0.3 points of U.S. share last year on the success of vehicles such as the redesigned Altima and new 350Z coupe, and Infiniti's G35 coupe and sedan.

Including Infiniti, Nissan's U.S. sales last year rose 5.1 percent to 739,499 units.

Ghosn, whose bold turnaround of the nearly bankrupt automaker has become a legend in Japan, didn't soft sell his Titan.

"There are lots of big trucks out there but none like this one," he said. "We have done our homework, and we know what truck owners want."

Nissan's public relations people couldn't emphasize enough that the truck is big, big, big and powerful.

Nissan also unveiled its next-generation Nissan Maxima flagship sedan, Quest minivan and Infiniti FX45, all of which go on sale this year. The Detroit rollouts will be followed in April at the New York Auto Show with unveilings of the full-sized Nissan sport-utility, which is based on the big pickup, and the 350Z roadster.

With the Quest, Nissan has moved to take the stodginess out of minivan ownership with the segment's boldest exterior styling and interior layout.

The Maxima moves further into the flagship arena, clearly separate from the Altima, with which it shares a platform.

And on the Infiniti side, the FX45 adds high performance in the luxury sport wagon arena.

Although the Titan makes a huge statement, Nissan is aiming for initial sales of only 100,000 sales annually.

The only full-sized pickup from a Japanese nameplate, the somewhat smaller Toyota Tundra, sold 99,333 units in the United States in 2002, down 8.8 percent from 2001.

Those numbers pale in comparison with Detroit's big pickup sales: 813,701 units for the Ford F-150, 652,646 for the Chevrolet Silverado and 396,934 for the Dodge Ram.

Nissan is targeting truck buyers who want something more than just a base model.

The Titan will come with a standard 5.6-liter, 32-valve, aluminum-block V-8 engine mated to a five-speed automatic transmission. At launch, it will come in a King Cab (extended cab) version with a 78-inch bed and a Crew Cab version with a 66-inch bed.

Doors swing wide

Nissan design chief Shiro Nakamura proudly showed reporters other features, including the double-hinged King Cab rear doors that swing back wide, almost flush to the body. The bed and the tailgate are lighted. Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS are standard.

There's a locking storage compartment in the left rear quarter panel. A factory-issued toolbox can be locked to the cab or rolled out of the bed. The Titan can tow 9,400 pounds. Options include side curtain airbags and a factory spray-in bedliner. Nissan also will introduce the option of bucket seats to the full-sized segment, which until now has had three-across bench seating.

Nissan market research showed that many truck owners thought the idea of a separate driver's seat was more refined than rubbing denimed thighs with two buddies from the job site.

Since Nissan had never built a big truck before, how did it know what to do?

Thirty months ago, Nissan took 70 of its Japanese engineers and designers to Texas, fitted them with cowboy hats and had them mingle with big-truck owners. Nissan also created a miniature fleet of competitive vehicles and let 1,000 consumers drive them for two weeks.

Much of Nissan's research involved what truck owners felt was missing. The biggest complaint was that trucks involved a compromise in terms of the perceived quality of the vehicle. Fittings were crude, rather than "high-touch," said Larry Dominique, Nissan chief product specialist.

As a result, the Titan's interior has more in common with a Maxima than a Dodge Ram.

Titan has its limits

Not that the Titan hits every target. It offers only one wheelbase. There is no price-leader V-6 version, nor is there a diesel. A heavy-duty version is years away, if it ever comes.

What's more, dealers need to be prepped for a new kind of consumer, as well as redo their service bays and lifts to accommodate the vehicle. There also is the marketing challenge of breaking generations of domestic brand and product loyalty, although the Toyota Tundra has begun to erode that.

Although Nissan hopes to retain the 13 percent of Frontier buyers who move up to a full-sized truck, as well as gain people to the segment, executives realize they may have a conquest rate as high as 75 percent from Big 3 truck loyalists.

"To be a carpenter and buy a Japanese truck takes some cojones," Dominique said. But those blue-collar types added that they would have no problem being the second or third guy on the job site to buy one.

"We don't have to bow our heads with this truck," Dominique said. "Our specifications stand on their own."

Production of the Titan begins in October at Nissan's plant in Canton, Miss. The factory will begin with production of the lower-volume full-sized Nissan sport-utility, instead of the Titan.

You can reach Mark Rechtin at mrechtin@crain.com

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