CRANFIELD, England - Nissan Motor Co. believes that its upcoming replacement for the Almera subcompact will be so dramatic - and so far removed from the automaker's reputation for bland styling - that car buyers may think it's a Ford.
'Without Nissan badges, a lot of people would not consider it one of ours,' said Ian Milburn, deputy managing director of the Nissan Europe Technology Center here.
'I believe it is as dramatic as the Ford Focus.'
Nissan is well versed in producing reliable, high quality cars that are satisfying to drive, Milburn said. 'But they do not set the customer's heart on fire,' he admitted.
That transformation is intended to begin with Project 144, a reworked Primera due this fall with dramatic front and rear makeovers. That will be followed in 2000 by the Almera replacement, code-named HS, which will be introduced with U.K.-built hatchback versions.
The hatchbacks will be followed by a Spanish-built Renault Scenic-sized minivan code-named HM and a larger multipurpose vehicle. A sport-utility off the same platform is planned within three years.
With the Almera, the design center will include features specifically for European customers. For example, it will have the dial-operated seat recliner favored by Europeans rather than the lever-operated variety Japanese motorists prefer.
The Primera and Almera makeovers are the first products of a 10-member vehicle experimental group set up here to develop vehicles by tapping into consumers' 'hidden aspirations' through clinics.
'Most people do not have the vision to say they want a New Beetle, or an Audi TT. They give you less dramatic responses,' Milburn said. 'You have to draw out the inspiration, not necessarily from rational ideas.'
Cranfield is the research and development fulcrum for Nissan's increasingly integrated European manufacturing operation.
It serves Nissan's plants in the United Kingdom and the revamped Motor Iberica facility, near Barcelona, Spain, and oversees four European satellite operations: Nissan Design Europe in Munich, the design studio; NETC-Espana; NETC-Brussels, responsible for keeping Nissan in tune with European Union regulations, and NETC-Sunderland, where the test track is located.
The Almera will be based on Nissan's new MS (medium/small) global flexible platform that will underpin 10 models with a combined production potential of 1.2 million units worldwide. The automaker aims to cut the number of platforms it uses from 25 to five by 2005.