DETROIT -- The casual observer of Nissan product development for the past year or two could easily get the idea that the company has shifted its focus from interesting-but-marginal niche products to big-selling mainstream volume products.
Not so, says the automaker's top global product planning executive.
Nissan is just completing a 15-month cycle of redesigning most of its volume leaders, such as the Altima, Sentra and Pathfinder, with big marketing campaigns and record sales gains. But it remains as keen as ever to bring out expressive niche vehicles like the Cube, Juke and GT-R, even though they aren't big sellers, says Andy Palmer, executive vice president at Nissan's Japanese parent company.
"You call them niche vehicles -- I call them brand-builders," Palmer says, speaking during the Detroit auto show. "But yes, we're going to continue to do those cars.
"It's definitely important to us that we strengthen our mass-market focus. We want to make sure we're in the 5-million-sales club. But that doesn't preclude us from offering expressive smaller volume niche vehicles."
Palmer hinted, in fact, that Nissan would unveil a sports car this year.
Palmer defends the low-selling 122-hp Cube as an "expression of one point in time" for Nissan. The boxy small car had sales of under 8,000 units last year, half the 2011 level. Palmer indicates future versions are in the works.
"Niche vehicles are really brand-builders. They're part of the brand aspiration process," Palmer says. "They share DNA with other vehicles. People may buy an Altima because they really aspire to a GT-R. And younger buyers want something different than older buyers want. How do you appeal to those new customers?"
He also reasoned that an automaker never can be sure where a niche product might lead.
"When we showed the Juke at the Geneva auto show a few years ago, people said, 'You're not really going to build that, are you?'
"We sold around 350,000 globally last year," he adds. "We're making a lot of money on it now."