TOKYO -- Nissan Motor Co.'s weak performance in April is taking some shine off the turnaround engineered by CEO Carlos Ghosn.
Nissan's April sales fell in the United States, Europe and Japan. Production in all three key markets also dropped, as did exports from Japan.
Nissan COO Toshiyuki Shiga has market-by-market explanations for the lousy showing. But, fundamentally, his response is the same for all markets: Wait. Nissan is counting on a series of new models due later this year to turn things around abroad.
In Japan, a restructuring of the carmaker's dealer network also will help, Shiga says.
He met with reporters prior to the launch of a reskinned Presage minivan for the Japanese market.
Famine, then feast
Nissan will have had few new or redesigned models in any of its major markets in the 18-month period that will end Sept. 30, 2006. Then a new-model flurry will kick in, with one almost every two months for the following 18 months.
In North America, going into the fiscal first half that began April 1, Shiga said, "We were ready for hardships."
Later in the year, though, Nissan's new-car launches will include "compact cars for the needs of customers concerned about the price of fuel," Shiga said. Those launches include the Versa, which will slide in below the Sentra in Nissan's lineup.
"We believe these cars will contribute more than we had expected," Shiga said.
Nissan's European sales also were off in April, in part because of a decision to forgo some rental-fleet sales of cars, such as the compact Micra. Nissan Europe also halted sales of a few models that did not meet new European regulations.
Calling it a "transition period," Shiga said that although sales are down, "We are in line with our business plan in sales and profits" for Europe.
European sales in April dropped 5.2 percent to 46,665. Still, that was marginally better than Nissan's performance elsewhere.
In the United States, sales fell 5.4 percent to 86,720.
The biggest collapse came in Japan. Sales there fell 18.5 percent to 44,008.
In line with the declining sales, Nissan's production fell 29.6 percent in Japan and 13.5 percent overseas. That includes a 19.6 percent drop in the United States. Exports to both the United States and Europe dropped. Total exports slid 18.2 percent to 50,417.
Much of the drop is payback after a push to pump up sales by the end of last September.
Nissan met - barely - a goal of boosting sales by 1 million units by then, compared with sales three years previously. That was one of the three main goals of a three-year business plan known as Nissan 180.
Shiga conceded that there was a payback after the push to reach Nissan 180's sales goals. "We totally expected a backlash, but the decline exceeded our expectations," he said.
Speaking with reporters at the Detroit auto show in January, Ghosn also had said the company saw sales drop in the October-December quarter as a backlash to the Nissan 180 push. He asserted at the time that the payback period was over, but he apparently spoke too soon.
Beyond the anticipated sales drop, showroom traffic in Japan has seen "a huge decline" since last fall, Shiga said. The company now is trying to come up with events to boost showroom traffic.
Why Japan is weak
"We are not at all satisfied" with the sales weakness in Japan, Shiga said.
He offered three explanations for Nissan's Japan sales woes in April.
1. Comparison with a strong year-earlier month. In April 2005, Japan-market sales jumped 17 percent. "But we were not able to maintain the performance," Shiga said.
2. A shift in the underlying market. In April, sales of 660cc minivehicles rose 5 percent while those of larger vehicles fell 8 percent. Nissan has only three minivehicles in its lineup. They are built for it by Suzuki Motor Corp. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp.
"We believe we have to reinforce the lineup of minicars to an appropriate level," Shiga said. He admitted, though, that the company worries that too many minis in its lineup might lead to cannibalization of its compact cars, such as the March.
3. Dealership restructuring. Nissan is in the midst of restructuring its domestic sales network in hopes of making it "a big contributor to profits," Shiga said. It is consolidating sales outlets, trimming the number of factory-owned stores in favor of independently managed ones, and altering dealer margins.
He did not say when he expects to see the benefits of that restructuring.
You may e-mail James B. Treece at [email protected]