Every auto show has one. The Star. A car, an executive, maybe an issue, that captures the herd's attention, fires the imagination, generates a buzz .
If a halo hung above any stand at this year's North American International Auto Show, many journalists and industry executives agreed last week that it was over Nissan's. Some signs:
Press conferences to unveil the new Nissan Z and full-sized pickup, as well as the Infiniti Q45 and sport wagon concept, were packed 30 minutes before they started.
Nissan President Carlos Ghosn was trailed by a wake of reporters and well-wishers everywhere he went on the show floor. Everyone, it seems, wanted to be next to The Man. Mazda product planning czar Phil Martens, for example, bolted from an interview when he spotted Ghosn perusing the new Mazda RX-8.
Walking away from the Nissan stand, a clearly impressed Jim Press, COO of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., said: 'We need them to push us like this.'
And judging from the approach made by one auto executive to a journalist at a reception last week, Nissan is the place to be these days. Could he, the journalist was asked, pass along the executive's card and a good word to someone in Ghosn's circle?
'A guy like that you actually want to work for,' the executive said of Ghosn. 'How rare is that?'
Working the room
Ghosn worked the room like a master showman. After promising for months to reveal the Nissan brand identity at Detroit, he became coy, as did his lieutenants. To him, the product is the brand, and the brand is the product. But what does Nissan stand for?
'We must unveil the brand as we unveil the product, step by step,' Ghosn said.
'There is no problem at a car company that good product can't solve. We want to have leading-edge technology but with a daring and memorable, emotional edge.'
Even when product managers and designers talked about the images they hoped their vehicles would evoke, they were deliberately vague: 'Performance, agility, responsiveness and feedback,' said Jack Collins, Nissan North America vice president of product strategy.
Nissan's plan, instead, is to bring out the products, then chat them up.
At the top of Nissan's new products list is the Z sports car, to come in mid-2002.
The Z will be powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 that generates 260-plus hp and 240-plus pounds-feet of torque, giving it a 0-to-60 mph time of less than six seconds. And while such performance characteristics put the old 300ZX into a stratospheric price realm, Ghosn promised the new Z will cost less than $30,000.
'The original 240Z stood for high standards and a unique character. The new Z will be an icon, a complete illustration of the new Nissan,' Ghosn said.
But while the first iteration of the Z concept - unveiled at Detroit two years ago - was a paean to the 240Z's heritage, this edition looks forward with few cues to the past, said Nissan Motor design director Shiro Nakamura.
'We walked away from retro design, which would have just met customer expectations. We wanted something that drives the way it looks, and looks the way it drives,' Nakamura said.
The latest edition of the Z concept came from Nissan Design America and was refined in a collaborative effort between American and Japanese stylists, Nakamura said.
To be sure, some design cues borrow from past Z cars, such as the C-pillar and tail-section from the 300ZX, and the rear greenhouse and quarter window treatment from the 240Z. But the arc of the A-pillar into the roofline hints at the Porsche 911, and the shape of the front headlamps and grille are not set in stone.
On the inside, a swath of brushed metal and leather, and a center-mounted instrument cluster, still is in concept phase, a source said.
The new Z will be offered in two-seater layout only, unlike the 300ZX, which also had a 2+2 version.
22 new products
The Z will be one of 10 new Nissan and Infiniti products that will arrive in America over the next three years, and of 22 new products globally, Ghosn said.
But while the Z is a huge part of Nissan's future brand image, more important to its long-term growth is its full-sized pickup, which arrives in 2003.
The inside joke among Nissan North America product planners is that the Toyota Tundra is a 7/8-scale full-sized pickup. And while Nissan declined to give the dimensions of the Alpha-T concept truck unveiled at the show, its stature certainly is that of a full-sized player.
The industrial squared-off look of the Alpha-T concept is not a final design for the truck, which arrives in calendar 2003. The automaker is testing several other design directions with consumers.
'This particular truck is very strong and industrial. You have to see the functionality. This truck has to be used as a tool,' said Collins.
Nissan plans to use a torque-tuned version of the 4.5-liter V-8 that will be in the new Infiniti Q45, a Nissan source said. Although the final production version will be sold predominantly in the United States, the Alpha-T was designed in Japan with help from Nissan Design America stylists.
Nissan designers were concerned with second-row seating, because Toyota Tundra occupants have to sit bolt upright. In the case of the Alpha-T, the C-pillar is raked back at almost the same angle as the A-pillar, allowing for second-row occupants to recline in their seats.
Interestingly, although Nissan wants the pickup to be a volume product, designers said the only layout in the works is for a four-passenger configuration powered by a V-8 engine.