Alcantara is used in limited amounts in that vehicle segment to create soft but firmly gripping surfaces for seats and steering wheels that help performance drivers take racetrack curves at high speeds.
Nissan wanted it for those same appearance and performance reasons. And U.S. designers incorporated it into the seats, steering wheel and door trim of the Maxima SR.
But Nissan also wanted Alcantara to create a "wow" effect on sports car-savvy consumers who might have heard of Alcantara or seen it on exotic cars at auto shows and might be surprised to find it on a mass-market Maxima.
Jayamohan says Nissan is making sure the brand name is mentioned in dealer showrooms. Part of Alcantara's supplier arrangement requires the Italian company to help Nissan market it.
But feeding the material into a production line in Smyrna, Tenn., with its carefully choreographed just-in-time suppliers, was not as simple as issuing a purchase order. The material is exclusively produced by Alcantara. The company is headquartered in the fashion capital of Milan, Italy, and keeps 100 percent of its manufacturing there under close watch.
Alcantara stepped up efforts to market to automakers in 2008. But unlike other European and Asian automotive suppliers, it has shown no interest in localizing production to be closer to its customers.
Dave Kalinowski, Nissan North America manager of seat engineering, was heavily involved in the Alcantara plan from concept to final sourcing. Early in the project, Nissan broached the subject of whether Alcantara would -- or should -- offer Nissan localized fabric output, Kalinowski says.
As a rule, Nissan hates transportation costs. Nissan has been on a campaign to localize production of as many of its parts as possible and is even urging its U.S. suppliers to move closer to Smyrna.
Against that backdrop, the decision to source interior parts from a posh fashion supplier 5,000 miles away in Milan might look like a contradiction. But Kalinowski says there is more to it than logistics.
"We wanted to maintain our exclusivity. We were willing to go halfway around the world to get it. If they moved production here or to a place like Mexico, anyone would be able to get it at a lower cost. We'd lose our advantage over competitors like the Chrysler 300 or the Toyota Avalon. They'd be able to get the same material at the same price."
The resulting arrangement is that Nissan holds upfront negotiations with Alcantara and establishes the purchase orders. The material is sent in bolts by ship from Italy. It is received by Nissan's local Maxima seating supplier, Tachi-S Automotive Seating USA, which processes the Alcantara into seat and trim pieces at its plant in Mount Juliet, Tenn.
Other solutions might have been easier, the Nissan team acknowledges.
"We could have simply used leather instead of the Alcantara," Kalinowski agrees. "There is additional cost involved with the Alcantara. But there was more to it than that. The Alcantara brand name itself brings value to the car."