MONTEREY, Calif. - In late May, Nissan Division will launch an array of vehicles that are expected to raise the company's truck sales to well above one-third of its total U.S. volume.
All the new models are based on the Tennessee-built Frontier pickup platform.
For most of the 1990s, Nissan relied on a three-sedan strategy as the rest of the market drifted toward light trucks. Now, Nissan is playing catch-up.
The division sold 557,879 cars and trucks in the United States in 1998, about one-third of them pickup trucks, sport-utilities or minivans. But only 91,629 came from the Frontier platform; this year Nissan expects as many as 170,000 vehicles to come from the Frontier.
'Nobody will have a broad pickup line like Nissan,' Jack Collins, Nissan North America director of product strategy, said at a media preview here.
Perhaps the most important new entrant is the Xterra, a compact sport-utility that will be priced below others in that segment. It may be Nissan's best chance to draw new customers into showrooms and turn the public's perception away from Nissan as a troubled, deal-of-the-week company.
Expected to start around $17,500 for a base model with two-wheel drive and a four-cylinder engine, the Xterra should be less than $20,000 as a 4wd V-6, Collins said.
Nissan plans to market the Xterra as 'authentic, tough, rugged, capable and functional, with no unnecessary features,' Collins said. In more blunt terms, Nissan wants to exploit the price gap between car-based 'do nothing' mini-sport-utilities and the more expensive, truck-based compact sport-utilities.
Although it will carry the same 3.3-liter V-6 as the upmarket Pathfinder, the Xterra will be marketed and positioned toward a more youthful audience.
The Xterra's target demographic will be 32 years old, 65 percent of whom will be male, with fewer than half married. Household income is expected to be about $45,000. That contrasts with the Pathfinder's target audience: about 40 years old, 65 percent male, 65 percent married, with a household income around $76,000.
To hit its price point for the Xterra, Nissan had to cut some corners.
For instance, the seat cushion must be removed to fold down the rear seat.
Many of the interior pieces are recognizable from the Frontier pickup. Four-wheel drive is shift on the fly, not full-time. The inline-four engine will be paired only with two-wheel drive.
At the same time, however, the Xterra's standard equipment will include three power points, 10 tie-down hooks, anti-lock brakes, dual mountain bike mounts and a plastic cut-out board for tire-change tools and lugnuts. A 1,600-watt audio system, waterproof seats, first-aid kit and roof rack are optional.
Nissan deliberately has left off such items as leather seats and automatic climate control. People who want those luxury items will be steered toward the Pathfinder.
Nissan will focus on cable TV and 43 lifestyle magazines for its launch advertising. The Xterra also will be promoted in a series of triathlons. Nissan's Web site has been busy with pre-introduction hype, drawing nearly 35,000 'hand-raisers' interested in the product.
Although the profit target is 50,000 annually, Mike Seergy, Nissan Division general manager, has told the factory to be ready to build 70,000.
Nissan will be first to the market with a true four-door compact pickup. It will be called the Frontier Crew Cab.
It will be offered only as a V-6, but it will have both 2wd and 4wd versions, as well as manual and automatic transmissions.
Because of the larger cabin, the bed is shorter than on a traditional pickup. However, with an optional bed extender the Crew Cab will be able to carry a motorcycle.
The Crew Cab target is 43 years old; 80 percent are male; 71 percent are married; and 46 percent have kids. Family income is about $60,000 a year. Nissan wants the Crew Cab to be noticed, so it will offer 10 color choices - including that vibrant 'Baywatch' yellow used by the Los Angeles County lifeguards who already have placed a fleet order.
Pricing will be slightly higher than the King Cab, the upmarket Frontier series.
Despite the heavily commercial connotations of the name Crew Cab, Nissan is willing to trade that marketing downside to connote exactly what the vehicle is and does, Collins said.
For those customers who engage in light off-roading but don't need the expense and weight of a 4x4, Nissan has created the V-6 Frontier Desert Runner, which offers an optional limited-slip differential.
Since Desert Runner volume will be a small fraction of total Frontier sales, Nissan will market the vehicle rather quietly, mostly in lifestyle magazines.
Pricing will be in the mid- to high-teens. Collins expects the vehicle to do very well in the Southeast, where young people want the 4x4 look but do not necessarily need all the equipment that comes with it.
Where does the new-model blitz leave the Pathfinder?
Nissan will move its top-of-the-line sport-utility farther upmarket to prevent clashing with the Xterra. Pathfinder pricing was restructured in late February to help direct traffic away from the base Pathfinder that might overlap with a high-end Xterra.
Pathfinder gets a 19991/2 reskin, with new front and rear fascias that give it a more imposing, higher-status appearance. Last year, Nissan said a larger 3.5-liter V-6 engine was expected for Pathfinder in 2000, but it has since declined to update the status of that project.
Advertising will emphasize the Pathfinder's style and luxury, quietness and heritage.