Welcome back to the revitalization series. This is where I take my minimal understanding of the realities of big automotive business and tell them how I would run things if I were in charge. As with most, I expect it to largely be ignored by the powers that be and/or get yelled at on Reddit. We don’t get Nissan press cars currently, so some of this is subjective. But that’s OK, because I like to prattle on about enthusiast crap with a quick analysis of total sales. In this instance, I will purely focus on Nissan’s car line-up, and by the end of the article, you’ll see that I was completely wrong!
When last we met, I discussed some ideas about how to make Scion the fun, funky, and interesting car company Toyota always intended it to be. As with most of these columns, the key ingredient was “fun”. So today’s subject is no stranger to “fun”. It’s Nissan. My impression of Nissan of late are those annoying commercials where their cars violate the basic laws of physics by jumping onto mass transit trains, or catching some rad air on a snow-covered half pipe. Sounds fun, right? The violation is physics is never fun and will just get you into Newtonian levels of trouble. Back to reality, it’s hard to talk about Nissan on an enthusiast site without starting the the evergreen “Z”.
This is an easy one, we already covered where we think the Z should go, and that’s down. As in down market. The graphic below, or to the side, or wherever it ends up, highlights the problem. The Z is in a no-man’s-land, residing all by itself from a pricing and layout perspective. It’s more expensive than the BRZ/FRS, and has no back seat. It’s comparable to the pony-car trifecta (Mustang/Camaro/Challenger) from a price standpoint, but not a size/utility standpoint. It’s cheaper than pure sports car fare from Porsche and the Corvette, but not nearly as good. As Josh mentioned in the article, the BRZ and FRS platform mates are selling three times as well as the Z. Building a new, smaller, lighter, Z car on the same platform as the IDx concepts, just makes sense. Undercut the roughly $26,000 price of the Toyota-Subaru twins and ’86 them in sales. Keep it simple; base model, sport model, NISMO iterations. Done. The GT-R aside, Nissan is not a luxury or premium car maker, and it’s clear that the Z needs a major revitalization to survive. Take it back to its roots, back to when you could get a 240Z at a reasonable price and have a fun, RWD, long hood sports coupe to tackle some back roads.
This is where I figured I would come up with some wisdom about how to make the Versa fun and interesting and…holy shit they sell a lot of them! Like in the 130K-140K a year lot of them. The Fiesta, Sonic, and Accent all sell in the 57K-60K a year range. Apparently the lowest MSRP in the country ($11,990) sells cars. Touché Ghosn, signs are pointing to me be catastrophically wrong. Moving on.
4DSC. If you’re old enough to remember what that sticker stood for, you recall where it was placed. On the side of a 3rd Generation Maxima (late 80s-early 90s). And it was fairly legit, at least at the time. It won numerous “best of” awards around that era, and was known as a very “fun” sedan. Of late, that has not been the case and sales figures are showing that. After a steady decline from a recent high (well recent as of 2010) 60K sales per year, the Maxima has been hovering closer to 50K lately. So this new-as-of-2015 iteration, generation number 8, had better get on the ball. Nissan lists the main competitors as the 3-series BMW, Toyota Avalon and Acura’s TLX. In the same way the Versa is kicking the crap out of its competition, the Maxima is not. The Avalon and TLX sell at a year rate of +/- 7K (respectively) compared to the Nissan, while the 3-Series is the Versa in this comparison, pulling in over 140K last year and putting up 90K thus far this year (sales figures were split between 3 and 4 series as of June, so add 40K if you like).
Bottom line, the Maxima has its work cut out for it. Thankfully Nissan have done some smart things with the new car, including a focus on weight, the Max hauls just 11.6 pounds per horsepower. Pretty solid compared to its rivals which are all in the 12-14 pounds per hp range. The VQ35DE engine carries over from the 7th generation with 10 more horsepower, rated at 300 hp and 261 lb·ft of torque. The new muscular shape works for me, as does the swanky new interior seen below. I just hope this car is successful, it certainly seems like the right direction for Nissan. Time will tell, and this is a very competitive segment where Nissan is taking on premium brands. Including Infiniti, awkwardly enough.
If you couldn’t tell, I’m trying to break up the boring cars with interesting cars. Or was that vice versa? The Sentra occupies a competitive segment in the market. At first glance, it sells pretty well, 180K+ a year. But then you compare that to Civic, Elantra and Corolla and you find a different story. They sell in the 300K+ range; well the Japanese companies do, Hyundai is plugging along with 220K+. So the Sentra is getting a butt-whoopin. How do we fix that? Well currently it looks like a slightly larger Versa. It’s not all that interesting. How about a return to fun with the SE-R? Of course the old school 2.0-liter DOHC four cylinder engine in the original SE-R produced 140-hp and 132 lb-ft of torque. The current Sentra’s 1.8L 4-cylinder only puts out 130-hp and is pulling around another 300lbs compared to the old car. That’s not progress. So more power please, make the 6-speed available in more than just the base model, and give us some nice suspension and brake options. It’s not rocket science, you’ve done it before! Right, that solution may not sell cars, but it sure will be fun.
People buy Altimas. Not much else I can say about that. Sure, more people buy Accords (but not many more) and Camry’s (many, many more) but less people buy Sonatas! Honestly, my ideas about an SE-R style Altima, like we’ve seen before, probably wouldn’t increase the bottom line at Nissan. A bottom line that’s actually doing pretty well. I told you I could be wrong…
Citing sales figures for the GT-R is pretty pointless, as they don’t make, nor sell very many. In 2014 they moved 1436 here in the States. Total. That makes the often-compared-to 911 look pretty impressive with it’s 10K+ totals for the year. So what would I do with the GT-R? Well, that’s pretty simple, it needs a restyling. Not an evolution, like a clean sheet, keep-the-4-round taillights, redesign. Nobody will ever say it’s not an amazingly engineered machine, it surely is. But it’s never been seen as overly attractive. So make it prettier, maybe make it simpler and lighter while you’re at it. That’s getting pretty complicated though isn’t it? Honestly, it’s a halo car for Nissan, and may have done it’s job. The GT-R should be seen as having a trickle-down affect at Nissan. You have a very expensive, very fast and very advanced supercar. I want to see some of this technology in my Sentra or my Altima. If it’s there, it’s not being advertised very well.
In the same way the GT-R is a halo car for Nissan performance, the Leaf is a halo car for Nissan economy. Starting at under $30,000 (coincidentally almost equivalent to how many they sold here last year) you get a fully functional electric car, something only a handful of manufacturers have accomplished. Although you have to step up to the $34K+ model to get you range extended from 84 to 107 miles. That bookends the range of the all-electric Kia Soul we drove. Not groundbreaking though, and as we said in the Soul film, unless you live square in the middle of a city and don’t need to drive very far, it’s not necessarily practical as an only car. But as I said, it serves a purpose for Nissan and actually sells fairly well.
If you compare Nissan cars against the competition purely on sales numbers, they are doing better than I expected. Once you compare Nissan total US sales to everyone else, I was completely wrong about the need for revitalization at Nissan. At least from a sales perspective, more on what that means in a moment. Nissan has sold 1,227,213 cars through November. The only brands selling better in 2015 are Honda (but just, with 1,275,316), Toyota (1,907,088), Chevrolet (1,936,553) and Ford, who is whipping everyone’s ass with 2,275,109 cars sold in the US. So Carlos Ghosn, if you are reading this, je m’excuse, I’m sorry. Nissan is selling well in the United States, don’t worry about a thing.
Well, maybe worry a little bit. Nissan is lower than the competition in most passenger car segments, but seem to have a fairly linear ratio of MSRP – Total Sales (Versa 140K/year, Sentra 180K/year, Altima 303K/year). However, once you you get to the Z and the Maxima, then the wheels fall off a bit. Which is Nissan’s biggest issue, it doesn’t know what it is. They sell the one of (if not the) the cheapest cars on the market right next to a $101,770 GT-R. So when I enter the showroom, I’m not sure what I’m looking at. Are they targeting Ford, Honda and Toyota? Are you going after Lexus, Acura and BMW? Heck, are you going after Porsche and Ferrari? If you read their website and various comparison tests, it’s all of the above.
The elephant in the room we haven’t discussed is Infiniti, which hasn’t had the “newcomer” success that Lexus has had, but has still established itself in the luxury market. A look at the 2015 sales numbers cited above and you’ll see how things could be better. Infiniti has sold a scant 118,405 cars this year. That’s 1/3 as many as BMW, Lexus, or Mercedes have sold in the States. That’s “be careful and you may end up down there with Mitsubishi” territory. Of late, it appears as if Ghosn and company aren’t focusing on their luxury brand all that much and as a result, the Maxima directly competes with the Q50. Sure it’s got a little less power, but (depending on spec) it’s lighter and most certainly cheaper and similarly equipped. Much like the Nissan Z itself, the company needs a new vision. Personally I would love to see lighter, faster, more interesting offerings than what’s being offered by the staid competitors from Japan. So yes, I admit I was wrong (that’s hard to type). Nissan, at least from a total sales perspective, doesn’t need revitalizing. However, trying to be all things to all people won’t win over the long term, so while they have some solid cars, and pretty great sales, that lack of vision is worrisome.