TOKYO -- The redesigned Nissan Rogue crossover scheduled to arrive in showrooms next month is a watershed vehicle for Nissan Motor Co., the first product of a new modular development strategy that aims to slash costs. But the vehicle's engineers faced massive challenges.
Over four years, the engineers redesigned 84 component systems to make them common with systems used by Renault SA, Nissan's alliance partner. The goal: standardize parts for 1.5 million units over 14 models.
Consider the fuss over just the headlamp control stem jutting from the steering column.
Renault's light switch cycled through off-parking lights-on-auto, while its headlamp high beam switched on and off with a pull-pull of the stem. Nissan's lights cycled off-auto-parking lights-on, while its high beams were activated with a push-pull motion.
No big deal, right? After six months, the two sides managed to settle on a shared approach: Renault's light cycle and Nissan's high beams.
"It was very difficult to commonize," Toshiyuki Takahashi, Nissan's deputy general manager of strategic planning and point man for negotiating with Renault, said in an interview. "Only after a very long discussion or arbitration between Renault and Nissan could we finally find one solution."
And so it went with the 83 other component systems.
The effort -- which aims to cut purchasing costs by 20 to 30 percent and slash investment in engineering by 30 to 40 percent -- foreshadows the future of Nissan's global lineup: a wider range of vehicles built from a smaller kit of parts.
Nissan and Renault call the new concept the Common Module Family, or CMF. The strategy seeks to create maximum economies of scale.
When the first wave of CMF vehicle launches is complete in 2016, Renault-Nissan aim to be churning out 1.5 million mid-sized to large vehicles a year from the same stock of shared parts.
Volkswagen AG pioneered the trend, with a modular system that underpins the current VW Golf and Audi A3 compacts. Rivals such as Toyota Motor Corp. and PSA Peugeot Citroen are following suit to stay competitive on cost.
Renault-Nissan will roll out modular families to cover three segments: subcompact A-class cars; small B-class vehicles; and large C/D-class sedans, crossovers and SUVs.
The C/D-segment vehicles hit showrooms first, starting in November with the redesigned Rogue. By 2016 Nissan will add two more, the X-Trail and Qashqai crossovers sold outside of the United States, while Renault will introduce 11 nameplates, including the Espace minivan.
The partners will launch the A-segment vehicles in 2015. They have not announced timing for the modular B-segment cars.
In the first year of the CMF launch, only four assembly plants -- in Japan, the United States, China and England -- will be tooled for CMF vehicles. By 2016 11 more will be added, covering more than half Nissan's global production base.
Renault and Nissan needed the cost-cutting power of modular development to counterbalance the trend toward more expensive technologies and better equipped cars, said Makoto Haraguchi, chief engineer of the Rogue.
All automakers are facing similar pressures, analysts say.
"There is enormous scale and cost saving possible," says Henner Lehne, senior director for global light-vehicle forecasting at IHS Automotive. "Modular is the only way going forward."
Nissan and Renault began working on CMF in 2009.
The idea was to divide the car into pre-assembled blocks, or modules and then mix and match, like Lego creations, to assemble different vehicles.
The companies targeted 84 component sets to be made common, including heat and air conditioning units, accelerator-brake pedal assemblies, steering members, engine cooling systems and seats.
The two automakers then divided cars into five modules: cockpit, engine bay, rear underbody, front underbody and a single electrical system. Those modules are built with the common parts
For maximum volume, Nissan merged the Rogue nameplate, a hot seller in the United States, with the X-Trail sold elsewhere. The models, previously separate, now will be rebadged versions of each other.
The cost reductions won't necessarily mean lower stickers. The redesigned Rogue is priced $2,180 higher than the outgoing model. Nissan says that's because they are plowing the savings back into additional content. The CMF Rogue, for example, gets a third row of seats and better fuel economy than its predecessor.
"We are spending money on new features," Takahashi said. "It is paid for by the cost savings."
Massive use of common parts and systems comes with risk. Any part defects are multiplied across hundreds of thousands of vehicles, raising the ante on recalls.
It also complicates execution of midcycle design tweaks to address new problems that crop up, because one car's design is intertwined with that of others, said Lehne of IHS Automotive.
Moving to common modules is costly and takes time. "We had many roadblocks," Haraguchi said. "For every design specification, Nissan and Renault had different specs."
In the C/D segment alone, there were 869 mismatches to be hammered out between Nissan and Renault.
The conflicts included such things as part specifications, packaging, electrical systems and market requirements.