Unlike the last time we met, Jed Connelly seemed in good spirits, talking up the upcoming Titan, Nissan's first fullsize pickup truck. It was horrible when we last spoke.
That was at a Nissan national dealer meeting in Las Vegas. It was supposed to be a buoyant event focusing on Nissan's comeback and the redesigned Altima.
I had a scheduled interview that day with Connelly, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Nissan North America (NNA). The awful news came just before the interview.
It was Sept. 11, 2001.
To Connelly's credit (and mine, too, I suppose) we went ahead with the interview. I recall how physically affected he appeared, ghastly and pale.
He looked much better in Detroit last month pitching the Titan and the significance of Nissan becoming a player in the fullsize pickup segment.
Connelly waves off speculation that Nissan may be moving too fast, too far as only the second foreign auto company (besides Toyota) to enter a segment that's a domestic stronghold.
“If you can't be bullish in the U.S. vehicle market, there's no other place to be bullish,” he says.
Still, Nissan best brace itself.
I've seen fights nearly erupt between Chevrolet and Ford pickup owners debating whose vehicle is better. They're brand loyal. They're mostly male (88%). They proudly buy American.
Yet Nissan isn't blindly entering the industry's most brand-loyal, domestic-dominated vehicle segment, says Larry Dominque, Titan's chief product specialist.
NNA has spent an unprecedented $2 million in consumer research to learn more about American pickup people.
The Japanese auto maker asked 1,000 U.S. truck owners in eight “truck states” (such as Texas, Arizona, Colorado and Georgia) about themselves and their vehicles. It also interviewed dozens of fullsize truck dealers.
Nissan says it learned there are two types of truck owners, regardless of brand.
There's the “traditional” trucker who's highly brand loyal, uses the vehicle for work, lives in a rural area, likes classic truck styling and is hesitant about new technology.
Then there's the “modern” truck owner who is open-minded enough to switch brands, drives a truck mainly for personal use, lives in the suburbs and is willing to try something new.
Nissan is going after the latter.
It expects to sell 100,000 Titans a year. That compares to Ford last year delivering 813,701 F-150s and General Motors selling 652,846 Chevrolet Silverados and 202,045 GMCs.
Nissan doesn't expect to crush Ford and GM, both of which ferociously guard their homeland truck markets. But Nissan thinks it has a fighting chance to take sales from the Dodge Ram and Toyota Tundra. They had deliveries of 396,934 and 99,333 units, respectively, last year.
Tundra owners are already receptive to imports; Ram owners are non-traditionalists and less brand loyal than their F-150 and Silverado counterparts, according to Nissan research.
NNA expects current and former Nissan owners will account for 25%-30% of Titan sales. But Dominique says, “We can't get all of our sales from Nissan owners.”
The Titan goes into full production in October at a new $2.4 billion plant in Mississippi. Dealership deliveries are scheduled to start in December.
NNA is putting dealership sales staffers through two rounds of Titan training. “We've never done such extensive training in the history of Nissan,” says Connelly.
He says it also will help that 50% of Nissan's dealers have pickup truck experience with other franchises.
About one-third of the 1,100 Nissan stores in the U.S. have undergone upgrades of some sort in preparation for the Titan launch.
“We went to dealers a year ago and told them what they needed to do, and they responded,” says Connelly. “We have believers out there now.”
Still, he keeps it real. Despite Nissan's comeback, lots of new-vehicle debuts, a projected 17% increase in sales this year and a first-ever truck, “we're not Toyota or Honda,” Connelly says.
“We wake up every day realizing there's someone bigger and badder out there. But I wouldn't want to trade places with anyone.”