Nissan sees styling as the Altima's path to mid-sized sales leadership

Mamoru Aoki: “The sedans are, imagewise, weak, with not so strong an impact on the market. That's what I want to change.”

UPDATED: 4/14/14 4:12 pm ET - correction

Update corrects reference to "boomerang headlamps" in third paragraph from end.

ATSUGI, Japan -- With the redesigned Nissan Murano, which debuts at the New York auto show this week, Nissan Motor Corp. aims to replicate some of the design magic that worked wonders for rival Hyundai Motor Co.

In 2009, Hyundai transformed the underperforming Sonata into a serious mid-sized sedan contender. The key: A dramatic styling overhaul that turned people's heads and boosted sales.

Nissan noticed.

Mamoru Aoki, the Nissan brand's global design chief, has been struggling with a two-pronged problem: How to bolster his brand's middling image and how to catapult the Altima sedan to the top of the mid-sized family car race.

The answer, he hopes, lies in the new design language premiering in the third-generation Murano. The crossover gets a chiseled, aerodynamic look cleaving closely to the creased Resonance concept vehicle shown at the 2013 Detroit auto show. But Nissan's beleaguered sedans are the real focus of the makeover.

"The sedans are, imagewise, weak, with not so strong an impact on the market," Aoki said in an interview at Nissan's global design center south of Yokohama. "That's what I want to change."

Aoki hopes his styling overhaul pushes Nissan's sedans to the front of the pack. The Altima, which traditionally has trailed the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord in its segment, has that goal within sight.

It led the segment in sales through February, though the Camry reclaimed the top spot in March. For the first quarter, the Altima's sales of 89,285 units trailed the Camry's 94,283, but topped the Accord's 79,188.

Aoki sees only one position for Nissan's upcoming sedans: "Ahead." He adds, "Catching up with the Accord and Camry is not enough."

The silver-haired Aoki, who rose through the ranks penning such cars as the 2004 Infiniti M sedan and 2002 Nissan 350Z coupe, aims high. He looks to the Hyundai Sonata, and its sibling Kia Optima, for inspiration -- in terms of what design can accomplish.

"It's not a half-step," the design chief says of the impending styling overhaul. "It's one big jump, like what Hyundai and Kia did last time. That kind of jump."

Aoki has been Nissan's global design chief since 2010. The makeover marks the brand's first overhaul under his watch.

The gambit aims to set Nissan apart with an instantly recognizable front face. If it works, it may drive Nissan closer to CEO Carlos Ghosn's goal of building brand value, an important step toward higher transaction prices and lower incentives.

Aoki aims to have Nissan's entire lineup adopt the new look, or elements of it, by 2017. That would meet Ghosn's Power 88 midterm business plan, which ends March 31 that year and includes better pricing power and a buffed-up brand image among its goals.

"There is a very deep relationship between brand power and styling," Aoki said. "Brand power equals price."

Nissan first previewed the new look in the Resonance crossover concept at the 2013 Detroit auto show. That was followed by the Friend-ME small sedan concept at the 2013 Shanghai show and the Sport Sedan Concept in January in Detroit.

It also will be seen in a close-to production sedan concept, to be displayed at the Beijing auto show, which could be a template for the next Sentra, Aoki said.

All the cars share the following design points:

  • A wedge-shaped front fascia, which Nissan calls "V Motion."
  • What Nissan calls a "floating roof," engendered by blacked-out pillars.
  • Wavy side paneling, dubbed Energetic Emotion Flow.
  • Distinctive boomerang-shaped headlamps.
  • A lower and wider stance.

The next Murano, for example will be lower and wider than its predecessor. That is partly to imbue it with more stable, rugged proportions but also to create the appearance of bigger wheels.

Nissan is also dumping the so-called "kamishimo" grille that appears on the current Altima, Sentra and Versa. An inverted trapezoid with curved edges, the grille is named after a type of formal samurai kimono with oversized shoulder pads and plunging lapels.

In its place, Nissan will introduce the V Motion look that builds off the buck-toothed V-shaped grille already on the Juke and Rogue.

The new grille will be bolder, more three-dimensional and blended into a sweeping front end and hood that creates a sharp focal point. It will also drop deeper into the bumper.

The boomerang headlamps are meant to lend a technical look to Nissan, as opposed to the more organic, curved eyelike headlamps of its Infiniti luxury sibling brand, Aoki said.

The sedans will get more dynamic looks that diverge from the typical silhouette of the segment. The cars will be wider and lower, with longer roofs and fastbacks to a short rear deck.

"We intentionally made this car look very different from the normal sedan," Aoki said of the upcoming Beijing concept. "To have consistency is of course a target. But to be differentiated from the other companies is the main thing."

Mamoru Aoki
Company: Nissan Motor Corp.
Title: Executive design director
Responsibility: Nissan brand design chief
Age: 56
Education: Industrial design at Chiba University
Joined Nissan: 1981

Previous work: 2004 Infiniti M, 2002 350Z, 2009 Infiniti Essence Concept, 2001 Cima, 2000 Almera

You can reach Hans Greimel at hgreimel@crain.com -- Follow Hans on Twitter: @hansgreimel



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