Saturday, July 3, 2004

Nissan expands successful cars


Hot designs revitalizing manufacturer

By Carol Traeger
Enquirer contributor

Cube Cubric

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The Cube Cubic is currently available only in Japan, but hits the U.S. around 2006.
Micra
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The Micra is the best-selling Nissan car in Europe, sporting a bowler hat-shaped body and bulging headlights.

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Nissan, which was teetering on the brink of financial disaster just five years ago, is on a rebound. After suffering a $5.7 billion loss in 1999, the company reported a record $7.3 billion profit in fiscal year 2003, which ended March 31.

During the first five months of this year, Nissan posted the largest gain in United States market share of any automaker, according to a report in Automotive News. It earned that market share by increasing its year-to-date sales by 30.9 percent, or 80,750 units, over the same year-ago period.

Nissan insiders attribute the company's incredible turnaround to its five-year alliance with French automaker Renault, and to the leadership of Carlos Ghosn, the former Renault executive who became Nissan's president and chief executive officer.

Since Ghosn took the helm, Nissan has launched no fewer than seven new products in the United States, including Nissan's 350Z, Quest, Titan and Pathfinder-Armada, and Infiniti's FX, G35 and QX56. During the past two years, the company has increased its investment in U.S. operations, opening a $1.4 billion assembly plant in Canton, Miss., and completing a $40 million expansion of its North American technical center located in Michigan.

On a global scale, too, Nissan is thriving. It now sells 3 million vehicles in 190 countries, and operates 27 plants in 18 countries.

Nissan 360 celebration

To celebrate its revival and showcase its products, Nissan hosted an event dubbed Nissan 360, in which it brought more than 70 vehicles from Japan, Europe and North America to Sausalito, a bayside city across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco.

Over the course of three weeks, more than 500 journalists and industry analysts spent a day driving Nissan cars popular in other countries, but unseen in the United States.

What the other guys drive

Driving strange vehicles - many equipped with right-sided steering wheels and left-handed stick shifts - proved challenging for some. (I, for one, kept turning on the windshield wipers when I meant to activate the turn signal.) But Nissan 360 was a worthwhile event. Not only did it give us a global perspective on Nissan's worldwide activities and products, but it provided us with valuable seat time in what the "the other guys drive," and, in some cases, firsthand experience in vehicles that will soon be coming to our shores. Nissan had previously announced plans to bring its Cube Cubic, Altima Hybrid and X-Trail sport-utility to the North American market.

Following is a brief recap on the vehicles I drove. Some of these vehicles are bound for the United States, some aren't, and some aren't but darn well should be.

Cube Cubic

Now sold only in Japan, this cute and cuddly little boxcar will probably bear a different name when it hits U.S. shores (circa 2006) to do battle with the Scion Xb and the coming Honda Fit. It's very spacious, with three rows of chair-like seats and great outward visibility. Part minivan, part compact car, Nissan says it designed the Cube Cubic to be "a three-row vehicle with outstanding practicality."

On those fronts, it delivers. Despite its anemic four-banger engine, which pumps out a measly 98 horsepower, I enjoyed piloting this car, and not just because I found the right-sided steering wheel entertaining. The Cubic is comfortable, roomy, and offers urban-chic looks and minivan practicality.

Altima Hybrid

A work-in-progress, this gas-electric sedan is due to arrive here in 2006 as a 2007 model. My passenger, Nissan HEV engineering department manager Hiroki Sasaki, was quick to point out that while the Altima uses Toyota's hybrid system, its 2.5-liter four-cylinder Nissan gas engine is much bigger than the engine in the Toyota Prius.

X-Trail

It's the second best-selling 4x4 in Europe, and after driving it, I understand why. What I don't understand is why the X-Trail will be sold in Canada, but not in the United States. (Maybe because its 165-horsepower turbo-diesel engine couldn't run on our sulfuric diesel fuel and/or meet our particulate standards.)

Currently sold in Europe, Japan and Mexico, among other places, this entry-level sport-ute is a tight and nimble performer. The steering is snappy, the handling is athletic, and the six-speed shifter is quick. My tester had a lush leather interior and a gargantuan sunroof. The X-Trail would be a huge hit in the U.S.

March 12SR

Apparently Nissan wants to keep the best for itself, because it sells this hot-rodded mini-coupe only in Japan. Weighing a dash more than 2,000 pounds, this cute little hug-a-bug has a sport-tuned suspension and is motivated by a 107-horsepower, 1.2-liter four-cylinder engine. It's so much fun to drive that Japanese enthusiasts have built a whole 12SR racing series around it. Americans would camp out for weeks and line up for blocks to buy this car, and chances are it wouldn't cost an arm and a leg.

Micra

The European version of the March, the Micra is the best-selling Nissan car in Europe. Built in England, the Micra features four doors, a bowler hat-shaped body, bulging headlights and a liftgate. With its tiny, torque-happy, four-cylinder, turbo-diesel mated to a five-speed manual gearbox, the Micra is as tossable and fun as a micro-Mini.

Skyline GT-R

When I drove an earlier rendition of this Japan-spec car four years ago, it was a cult vehicle known only to a select group of performance-car enthusiasts. It's still a cult car of sorts, but the furor has subsided now that the Skyline has become available stateside as the Infiniti G35.

Contact Carol Traeger by e-mail at ctrigger@aol.com



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