NASHVILLE -- Nissan’s full-size Titan pickup is one of the lowest-selling nameplates in the brand’s lineup. Last year, Nissan’s U.S. retailers sold almost 27 Altimas for every Titan that left their lots.
So why is Fred Diaz so charged up about this year’s long-delayed launch of a second-generation Titan?
Opportunity, he explains.
“There’s a huge opportunity there for us,” says Diaz, the Texan and ex-Chrysler truck executive who now runs Nissan brand U.S. sales and marketing operations. “There are customers out there who want something different in a full-sized pickup than what the market offers.”
The sales numbers do not immediately bear him out.
The current Titan has been on the market for nearly 12 years, and last year, it delivered just 12,527 sales. Ford’s F-series sold 753,851, and FCA US sold 439,789 Rams. Even Toyota, the only other non-Detroit-3 brand to offer a bona fide full-size pickup in America, sold 118,493 Tundras last year.
Yet one of Diaz’s first acts when he took over Nissan sales and marketing in 2013 was “to go see the truck.”
Diaz had been recruited from Chrysler, where he was CEO of both the Ram brand and of Chrysler de Mexico, where the Ram is made.
When he came to call on Nissan Design America in La Jolla, Calif., Nissan’s U.S. designers and engineers had been working on a new Titan since 2011. And Diaz would be the latest in a changing line of senior Nissan North American executives to proclaim the truck’s importance.
It didn’t always seem to be so important.
Stymied by rules
In early 2008, Nissan admitted being stymied by the rules and expense of upcoming fuel-efficiency regulations on trucks and opted to get a second-generation Titan from Chrysler. Chrysler would develop and manufacture a Titan version of the next Ram pickup for Nissan, using Nissan’s styling and specifications and delivering the truck starting in 2011.
But that didn’t happen. Well into that project, Chrysler collapsed into bankruptcy, and in August 2009, the Ram-Titan deal was canceled.
The setback sent Nissan’s designers and product planners back to the drawing board on the Titan. It also sent Nissan’s U.S. executives back into the boardroom with Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn for approval of a truck development and manufacturing program that Ghosn had previously agreed to outsource to Chrysler.
Today, Ghosn says he had no difficulty approving a truck that sells almost exclusively in the U.S., and for a segment where Nissan has underperformed for more than a decade.
“If you want to be one of the top brands in the United States, which is our objective -- and we have a goal of reaching a 10 percent U.S. market share -- you can’t do it without a presence in pickup trucks,” Ghosn told Automotive News on a recent visit to the United States.
“We have a very small presence in large pickup trucks today. It’s one of the largest segments in the U.S. And we have to increase in the segment. Our main opportunity today may be in trucks.”
'Eager to see it'
That directive partly explains why Diaz wanted to see the truck the minute he joined Nissan.
“I remember the day I went out to La Jolla to see it,” he recalls. “I remember sitting in the presentation. I was eager to see it.”
The design studio had scheduled 90 minutes for the new sales chief and former competitor. The first portion of it was spent in a meeting area at the studio, going over the truck’s history and various considerations, before unveiling the actual truck.
Diaz was wired, he remembers. “I was fidgeting and tapping my feet,” he admits. “I just really wanted to see the truck to see what I was going to get.”
Diane Allen, project leader of the Titan design, also remembers the apprehension in the meeting as studio personnel worried about what the seasoned Detroit truck veteran was going to think of their work.
“I remember the moment Fred finally saw it,” Allen says. “His face broke into a big smile. We were relieved.”
Diaz remembers that same moment:
“I have a gut instinct about trucks after all these years,” he says. “I feel like I can tell if a truck is good as soon as I lay eyes on it. And I really liked what I saw in the Titan.”
But he did have some suggestions, Allen recalls, including some specific requests about interior styling that the team implemented. Instead of spending 90 minutes there as planned, Diaz spent three hours with the designers, crawling through the truck, asking questions and discussing their styling ideas.
Diaz declines to enumerate his suggestions or input during that 2013 meeting.
“The truck was already good when I showed up,” he says. “The truth is, it was already going to be good even if I hadn’t come to work here.”