CANTON, Miss. -- Nissan Motor Co.'s plunge into full-sized trucks began in earnest here last week as its first Pathfinder Armada SUV rolled off the assembly line 10 days ahead of schedule.
Rolling on standard 18-inch wheels, the Armada rode nearly a foot taller than the Quest minivan on the assembly line just behind it. At 76.9 inches tall, the Armada stands at the same height as the tallest Chevrolet Suburban; the Armada is 1 inch longer than the Ford Expedition.
Dan Gaudette, Nissan's senior vice president for North American manufacturing, declared the launch one more task completed on Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn's turnaround plan. That plan has called for Nissan to add 1 million sales globally and enter new North American product segments - primarily the Big 3-dominated market for large pickups and SUVs.
In October, the same assembly line will fire Nissan's next shot across Detroit's bow when it begins turning out the full-sized Titan pickup.
"This will put to rest any doubts about the dimensions of Nissan's product variety," Gaudette told plant workers on Wednesday, Aug. 13, on hand to witness the first Armada.
Decherd cranks V-8s
But Nissan knows that size and power go hand in-hand in the North American truck market. Although it received little notice, just one day before the Armada's launch Nissan launched U.S. production of V-8 engines at a plant 500 miles away in Decherd, Tenn.
The Armada is powered by a 5.6-liter, 32-valve, dual-overhead cam-shaft V-8 built in Decherd that Nissan said delivers 305 hp at 4,900 rpm. The Ford Excursion SUV, by comparison, contains a 5.4-liter V-8 that generates 260 hp at 4,500 rpm.
Nissan spent $500 million at Decherd to install automated machining lines to make its foray into big trucks possible.
|New SUV on the block|
|How the 2004 Nissan Pathfinder Armada stacks up against the 2003 Ford Expedition and Chevrolet Suburban. Sales for the Armada are forecasted; sales figures for the Expedition and Suburban are from 2002.|
|Length||206.9 in.||205.8 in.||219.3 in.|
|Height||76.9 in.||77.4 in.||76.9 in.|
|Width||78.8 in.||78.7 in.||79.8 in.|
The investment was necessary because Nissan's existing V-8 capacity in Japan was inadequate to support the North American growth plan, Gaudette said.
The Mississippi assembly plant will turn out between 150,000 and 160,000 trucks and SUVs a year when it reaches full capacity in 2005. That's in addition to about 90,000 Quests and 150,000 Altimas. Altima production is scheduled to start in 2004.
But Nissan is not alone in wanting a piece of the Big 3 truck market. Toyota Motor Corp. is redesigning its nearly full-sized Tundra pickup to compete head-on against Nissan. Toyota is planning to double U.S. capacity for the Tundra with an announced $800 million plant in San Antonio. In July, Toyota revealed it would begin expanding its 4-month-old truck engine factory in Huntsville, Ala., to include V-6 engines.
Honda counters in Ohio
At the same time, rival Honda Motor Co. opened a $20 million, flexible, engine production line in Anna, Ohio, that will give Honda up to 120,000 additional light-truck engines annually.
But so far, Honda has not ventured above the V-6 threshold in its SUVs and minivans.
"You've got to have these V-8s to do what we're doing," Gaudette said.
Wes Brown, an analyst with the Los Angeles industry forecasting firm Iceology Inc., thinks the Armada's U.S.-built V-8 will be critical to attracting buyers. "Nissan knows it has to do something to take people away from Ford and Chevrolet," Brown said. "Those customers are pretty loyal. So they're doing it with a powerful powertrain and also a little bit quirkier design."