DETROIT - When Nissan North America Inc. saw an opportunity to seize a sparsely held segment of the sport-utility market with an inexpensive but full-sized vehicle, product planners in suburban Farmington Hills, Michigan, believed they could succeed only if they moved quickly - and if they built the vehicle in America.
So when production of the all-new 2000 Nissan Xterra was launched in April in Smyrna, Tennessee, not only did it become the most quickly developed and deployed vehicle in Nissan North America's history, but it established a milestone in the maturation of Nissan's U.S. organization into a complete automotive company.
'Nissan executives in Japan said, `If you say you can do this, go ahead,' ' recalled Larry Dominique, principal project designer for Nissan Research & Development in Farmington Hills.
'So it was an important thing for us in the U.S. to deliver, just from the standpoint of growing up as an organization. And this was the final, evolutionary step.'
The Xterra is the first Nissan vehicle to be fully developed, designed, engineered and built in the United States. Just 29 months elapsed from the project's design freeze in California to Job 1 in Smyrna - about 10 months less than other Nissan products to date.
What is more, the Xterra bears the clearest stamp of any Nissan vehicle of a product made and sold by Americans for Americans.
To be sure, Nissan North America has not been without influence in determining its model lineup.
Jerry Hirshberg, president of Nissan Design International - the La Jolla, California, design studio - has crafted the look of such U.S.-market entries as the Altima and the Pathfinder. Nissan's U.S. subsidiaries also have had a hand in altering Japanese-born products to fit American market tastes.
But the Xterra has surpassed those efforts.
Nissan finds a niche
The project started with the Americans' recognition that despite the proliferation of sport-utility offerings, a niche was still unfilled. Nissan planners believed a market existed for a reasonably priced vehicle that combined sporty functionality with durability and capacity.
By designing the vehicle in the world's principal sport-utility market, Nissan hoped to capture an overall design - along with numerous smaller cues - that spoke to American buyers. And with segment prices creeping into the $30,000 range, Nissan believed landing the Xterra at $20,000 to $22,000 would guarantee its success.
Automakers are ever eager to reduce costs and lower prices. But the Xterra's business case rests on low price. Nissan wanted the new product to reach out to younger buyers: Generation Xers who are largely excluded from the high-priced sport-utility market.
The U.S. design team also strove to accommodate off-road use by skiers, backpackers, surfers and other active lifestyles. For example, the Xterra has six 50-pound-test cargo hooks on the ceiling of the cargo compartment and four on the floor, and a removable roof rack.
'One of the buzz phrases as we designed this was `a backpack on wheels,' ' Dominique said. Such a mindset would have been difficult for Nissan to capture in Japan 'where they don't have as much opportunity to go off-road,' he added.
The effort to shave development time in order to hit the 2000 model year caused the team to dispense with company tradition.
Heading off problems
Typically, Nissan constructs three prototypes and three pre-production trial models. The U.S. team built only one Xterra prototype and three trial models.
And instead of bringing in the usual trained group of prototype technicians to build the early models, the developers tapped factory technicians from the Smyrna plant for the work.
That had other benefits. Using the very people who would produce the truck opened up the project to ideas on improving the way the truck is manufactured. The Smyrna team headed off assembly problems with alterations as detailed as rerouting the tube that carries windshield-washer fluid to the rear window in order to fit more easily under the headliner.
'That was something that, if we had done it the usual way, we might not have found until the first production trial in Smyrna,' Dominique said. 'And at that point it would have been very difficult and costly to change.'
Meanwhile, Nissan has spent the past few months on its Web-based marketing effort. The objective was to attract 50,000 expressions of interest in the Xterra.
By the end of February, Nissan had counted 35,000 - a clear confirmation to the company that it was striking a nerve.
Partly on the strength of that response, the Xterra team already is seeking a boost of first-year production to more than 60,000 units from the initial plan for 50,000.