Within five years, 75 percent of the models Nissan offers in North America will be designed by Nissan's California studio.
Nissan Design International will also create new vehicles off of existing platforms, as well as U.S.-sourced vehicles to be sold to the world market, said Jerry Hirshberg, president of Nissan Design International in La Jolla, Calif.
This will involve more than putting styling flares on existing shapes and ideas, Hirshberg noted. Nissan Motor Co. is giving the California studio and its research and development center in Michigan more say in the creation of the platform itself and the exterior and interior concept of the products.
'We've got a slew of products in the can already,' Hirshberg revealed in separate interviews at the opening of Nissan's engine plant in Decherd, Tenn., and at the press introduction of the 1998 Altima in La Jolla, Calif.
The moves are a sign of a growing maturity in Nissan's U.S. operations. The changes also reflect parent Nissan Motor Co.'s intent to spread responsibility for product development away from Japan. That movement lost some steam during the company's financial struggles this decade.
COURSE SHIFTS AGAIN
The new approach marks a turnabout for Nissan, Hirshberg and other company officials say. It is a recent move, too. The 1996 Pathfinder and 1998 Frontier pickup redesigns were done mostly in Japan.
After expanding the California design operation in the 1980s, Nissan shifted course around the turn of the decade. Japan's bubble economy burst, Nissan sales stumbled, and the company brought many crucial designs back to Japan.
But now, with Nissan's U.S. sales rising and the parent company re-emerging from four years of red ink, Nissan is preparing to devote more of its Japanese resources to Asian products.
That will allow the U.S. studio to turn loose on North American-built products and leave a much sharper local stamp on products marketed worldwide.
Those vehicles include a new Altima that debuts this fall, an all-new compact sport-utility that arrives in 1998, as well as the next-generation Quest minivan, Pathfinder sport-utility and Sentra and Maxima sedans.
Nissan yanked all design and development work on its Infiniti models back to Japan in 1994. But Hirshberg said North America will once again get more authority over the design of new luxury products.
'We will be seeing vehicles for the North American market that no one has even talked about, and they will be arriving in the near future,' he said.
Hirshberg said the studio is being brought on board earlier in the design process and given more authority and autonomy.
'We are influencing platforms. We're coming in earlier and earlier, and not just for cosmetic work. Nissan is asking us to come up with the plot of the story, not just translate the language. They are very serious about using the brainpower of its U.S. facilities,' he said.
With the Smyrna, Tenn., assembly plant more closely linked with domestic suppliers, and the engineering center in Michigan being given more responsibilities, Nissan is capable of creating a vehicle from the ground up entirely in the United States, Hirshberg said. But Nissan isn't about to do that yet.
'I'm not free to invent cars for this country, but it's becoming a real possibility,' he said.
NOT FREE REIN
Nissan has also given Hirshberg a directive: The company wants the United States to be a source for developing products for worldwide distribution, such as the next Pathfinder.
But at the same time, Hirshberg cautions, this enthusiasm must be tempered by the reality that Nissan and Japan are going through economic and political turmoil. Given the 'hollowing out' of the Japanese industry, decisions to export more work to America are not greeted warmly in Tokyo.
Also, the cost-cutting and content-removing trends among Japanese automakers have curtailed the amount of variation among products, even those destined for other markets.
'There is a heightened sensitivity toward creating 85 steering wheels for one model,' Hirshberg noted.
In addition, Hirshberg says Nissan has given his operation the green light to go beyond assignments to think up new concepts.
'They've told us that if we discover a niche for something that doesn't already exist, to go ahead and design it. If we can think of creative uses of existing platforms, then Japan will be delighted too,' Hirshberg said.
Until now, the La Jolla shop submitted designs for a project in competition with other design studios. La Jolla lost out on a number of those competitions. The parent company picked the Japanese design because of the need to sell cars in the Japanese market. The design for the current Pathfinder, which is sold primarily in the United States, was given to the Japanese studio, for example.
Now, Hirshberg says, the La Jolla group will automatically handle the products built in North America, plus it will continue to compete on projects that are built outside of this market. If the United States is a major chunk of the sales pie, La Jolla will be given much more influence in the design.
Said Hirshberg: 'We are going from being a satellite operation to a design center.'