DETROIT - Although struggling Nissan North America still has plenty of short-term problems, the company is optimistic that a deluge of new products will return it to its glory days.
Sales for Nissan and Infiniti divisions in 1998 fell for the fourth straight year, from 774,000 in 1994 to 662,000 in 1998. But executives feel a turnaround is in the works.
Nissan North America President Minoru Nakamura, his division general managers and their staffs have been working on fixing Nissan's bleak U.S. financial picture. Among their efforts last year: writing off losses on their lease portfolio and idling assembly lines to cut inventories.
And while there are still wildfires burning, relief may be in sight.
Within the next 30 months, at least 11 new or significantly redesigned Nissan and Infiniti products will come to market, in addition to timely facelifts and minor engineering upgrades. That is a powerful statement from a parent company on wobbly financial ground. But Nissan is depending on the strong American economy to help drag it from its global morass.
'The biggest driving power is product. We are going to have a much smarter lineup,' said Nakamura, who will address the Automotive News World Congress today, Jan. 11.
'We can do this because we have received the financial commitment from Nissan Tokyo. We are getting higher priority in resource allocation and more support in engineering, product development and finance,' he said.
But it takes more than new product. The products have to capture the hearts and minds of buyers. Although Nissan will continue to preach high quality - turf dominated by rivals Toyota and Honda - another word has crept back into the Nissan vocabulary for the first time in years: 'Authenticity,' said Jerry Hirshberg, president of Nissan Design International.
'If you look at the original Path-finder or 240-Z, there were no false notes. All the parts and pieces fit to a clear definition. Some companies are good at generalizing. We're not. We're good at nailing it,' Hirshberg said.
He added that Nissan has constrained itself in recent years by offering what he called 'generalist' product across its entire line. The vehicles were too broadly defined. Nissan did many things simply because Honda and Toyota did them, which was a bad move, he said.
Hirshberg said Nissan's cost-cutting platform-sharing strategy has instilled discipline in designers and engineers, and has boosted their creativity rather than stifled it. Hirshberg went through the failed badge-engineering experiment during his former career at General Motors in the 1970s, and he promises Nissan will not repeat such a fiasco.
As Americans again embrace Nissan product, Nakamura predicts Nissan and Infiniti sales will return to between 750,000 and 800,000 units a year somewhere between 2001 and 2005.
Does this awakening to product mean that the recently unveiled Sport Utility Truck and Z Concept may reach production? Yes, Nakamura said - even if the business case is not strong for them.
'We cannot expect volume from image-leading models. But those models are what Nissan is about,' Nakamura said.
The SUT could reach production because it would be a unique entry in the hot truck market. And a return of the Z could help connect Nissan with an owner body with whom it has lost touch.