Is Nissan gonna make it? That question has been on the lips of every auto-industry speculator as the industry has watched the automaker founder in debt, finally fainting into the waiting arms of Renault SA, which this year picked up a one-third stake in Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.
But the idle American consumer probably didn't pick up on the behind-the-scenes turmoil. It was hard to see past an original new sport/utility vehicle (SUV), a hot 2000 Maxima incarnation, and a high-profile and quite sensational ad campaign.
So is Nissan gonna make it? Here, a newly confidant Nissan has answered that question with an emphatic "Hell, yeah."
Since its June debut, Nissan has had trouble keeping its new SUV, the Xterra, in stock. With the Xterra, Nissan targeted an entirely new demographic segment: the Generation Xer. It's difficult to capture and package the desires of the 20-something generation, but Nissan's done it to a fare-thee-well with this boxy, gimmicky SUV.
What makes the vehicle a stand-out are nifty features - an interior bike rack, ceiling tie-down clips, and a first-aid kit - that cater to the young and active, or at least to those who think they fit that description. The SUV's far more popular powerplant is a 170-hp 3.3L SOHC V-6, which also powers Nissan's new Frontier pickup.
With this new product, an updated Maxima and Altima, and a next-generation Sentra on the way that's reportedly more risk-taking - Nissan at least has secured a decent U.S. lineup on which to hang its long- discussed "comeback."
Product mix, though, does not necessarily ensure a solid comeback. Nissan, working in conjunction with new partner Renault, must take care of some restructuring. For this, Nissan finds deliverance in the form of new Chief Operating Officer Carlos Ghosn.
Mr. Ghosn, a former Renault executive vice president who is known for his hard-line cost-cutting abilities, has vowed to return Nissan to profitability in the next fiscal year. Considering the company's ponderous $35 billion debt load, that's a tall order. Down the road, Nissan and Renault should further consolidate through platform sharing and rebadging each other's vehicles.
Plenty of industry pundits believe the upcoming reincarnation of the fabled "Z" sports car will be the barometer at least of Nissan's current product-development mentality. The first and last generations of the Z represented, respectively, the best of Nissan's market acumen and technical abilities. If by 2002, when the new Z-car arrives, it solidly represents those attributes, it might be inferred that the entire company is once again on the right track.