LOS ANGELES - Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. is on track to develop a full-sized pickup for the United States, a well-connected company source in America disclosed last week.
Although the project has not received final approval from Nissan's executive committee, a full-scale model already has been built, and the board will make its decision within a few months, the source said.
If approved, the Nissan truck would be on the market by the end of 2002. Nissan Motor COO Carlos Ghosn hinted at the possibility of entering the full-sized truck market during an interview in October at the Tokyo Motor Show, but sources say the company is much further down the road than Ghosn intimated.
DESIGNED IN JAPAN
Interestingly, the styling of the mock-up was done by the Japanese studio, which has been given a 'no boring cars' edict from management. Unlike most pickups' vertical C-pillars, the Nissan concept's C-pillar runs parallel to the inclined A-pillar. This allows second-row passenger seats to recline farther, while keeping the base of the cargo bed large enough for the requisite 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood.
'It's not necessary for Nissan Design International (in San Diego) to design everything for America, but America has to sign off on any product coming here,' the source said. In this case, the Japanese studio's rendering appears to be more attuned to U.S. tastes.
Toyota has followed a similar path with truck development. The Tundra and T100 before it were created by Toyota's Japanese studio, to mixed reviews from pundits and the media.
One industry analyst thinks Nissan's entry into the big-truck segment is a good move, despite its cash crunch.
'Nissan is woefully underrepresented in light trucks. Frontier, Crew Cab, Xterra and Pathfinder are not enough. They need to play in the high-volume truck market,' said George Peterson, president of AutoPacific, an industry consulting firm in Tustin, Calif.
In 1998, 34 percent of Nissan Division sales were trucks, although that came before the launch of the Xterra. However, Ford Division sold 67 percent trucks, Chevrolet 64 percent trucks, and Dodge 75 percent trucks. Toyota sold 37 percent trucks, but that was before the launch of the full-sized Tundra.
Peterson added that a full-sized pickup would likely have a full-sized sport-utility derivative, most likely for Infiniti.
Peterson said cost-of-entry into the segment would be less for Nissan than it was for Toyota. He added that Nissan's plant in Smyrna, Tenn., was designed to expand to as much as 1 million vehicle annual capacity, so adding a module for big-truck production would cost less than Toyota spent to build a new plant at Princeton, Ind. Last year, Smyrna built 308,837 vehicles.
MORE FUNDS PLEDGED
Despite the company's financial difficulties, Ghosn is spending more money on new cars and trucks. In a speech this month to Nissan North America employees, Ghosn pledged an additional $700 million in development funds for new products over the next three years. That comes from Nissan investing 5 percent of sales revenue in product development, up from its current 3.7 percent.'The main commitment of the Nissan revival plan is that ... we are going to put a lot of products on the market. We are going to be producing cars in all the segments where we hope we can make profit. And a lot of these segments are in the United States,' Ghosn said.
Even not counting the full-sized pickup, Nissan is increasing its emphasis on light trucks. The Sport-Utility Truck - the body of a sport-utility with the cargo area turned into a truck bed - is on pace for a 2002 introduction. A car-based sport-utility - already promised to Infiniti, and now scheduled for Nissan as well - will be unveiled in Detroit in 2001 for a 2002 introduction. A dramatic midcycle change to the Frontier pickup is coming next summer. There even have been focus groups in America to examine the possibility of bringing the unusual Renault Avantine to this market under a Nissan badge, company sources said.
Not that Nissan is ignoring the car market. A new Sentra comes in a few months. A redesigned Altima coming for the 2002 model year will be the basis for the next-generation Maxima. Infiniti is going to have a new Q45 and G20 within two years, and the I30 may be short-cycled as well, company sources said.
This increased allocation of funds toward product spending comes as Nissan takes a bitter $3.05 billion loss for the six months ended Sept. 30. Nissan is expected to announce painful restructuring moves to its North American operations on Wednesday, Dec. 1.