CANTON, Miss. -- Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. became a bigger threat to the Big 3 on Tuesday by firing up production at its second U.S. assembly plant, which will build full-sized, American-styled vehicles.
Japanese automakers already book most of their profits from U.S. operations and are doing much better in a skittish market than General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler.
Taking foreign competition to new heights, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn plans to use the $1.43 billion plant here as the staging ground for an all-out assault on the U.S. truck market.
Ghosn dedicated the Mississippi plant on Tuesday and marked the official start of production of Nissan's all-new Quest minivan. Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott called Ghosn "a rock star of automobile production" before a cheering crowd of plant workers.
The vehicle, which goes on sale this summer as a 2004 model, marks a radical departure from the old Quest that Nissan produced in an uncelebrated joint venture with Ford.
Later this year, as part of Nissan's ambitious expansion strategy, Canton will also begin building the new Nissan Pathfinder Armada full-sized SUVand a full-sized pickup truck dubbed the Titan.
Toyota Motor Corp. was the first foreign automaker to enter the high-margin, full-sized pickup segment with its Tundra model. But the bulky Titan is bigger and more powerful than the Tundra, and a pre-production model won plaudits at the Detroit auto show in January as a vehicle that could compete well in the quintessentially American segment.
GM, Chrysler and Ford, which will launch production of a redesigned version of its best-selling F-150 next month, still dominate the high-margin pickup segment. But a new "transplant" model on the block is unwelcome competition for the Big 3. Nissan plans to sell 100,000 Titans annually once production hits full speed.
In addition to the Armada and Titan, Canton will launch production of a full-sized SUV for Nissan's luxury Infiniti division in the first quarter of next year. The plant, with a capacity to build 400,000 vehicles annually, will also produce Altima sedans, adding to Nissan's production of the car in Smyrna, Tenn., at its only other U.S. assembly plant.