We're standing with a midlevel Big Three executive at the North American International Auto Show in January, and the tension is building as Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. prepares to unveil its first-ever fullsize pickup.
The sheet is yanked and it's immediately obvious Nissan isn't fooling around: The '04 Titan is truly full-sized, assertively styled — and almost brazenly presented.
The exec turns and says, with as much deadpan as he can muster, “Well, it's official. Nothing's sacred anymore.”
Nothing's sacred indeed. Nissan comes out swinging with Titan, certain it's got the first Japanese-badged pickup that can crack the domestics-dominated fullsize market. Japan's No.3 auto maker suddenly is everybody's favorite auto company because it's hip-deep in a cascade of intriguing new models, taking styling chances and backing them up with solid platforms and stout performance.
Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn calls it part of the auto maker's strategy to be part of every segment where profits can be made. He assures Titan will be able to carve a significant niche in the almost domestics-exclusive segment. “We have done our homework. We know what big truck buyers want,” he says at the unveiling.
The Titan goes on sale in December and will be preceded, curiously, by the Nissan/Infiniti SUV derived from Titan's all-new platform. All will be built at Nissan's new Canton, MS, assembly plant, where seven major suppliers are on-site, and at least a couple dozen have located nearby.
The company's deliberately keeping the initial formula relatively simple: One engine, one transmission, one wheelbase, two body styles and two box lengths, rear-wheel drive or 4-wheel drive.
It's probably preferable to limit the exposure from a broad model range since a gigantic proportion of Titan sales must be captured from other brands. That means, of course, the Big Three.
Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Group are the only established players in the U.S. fullsize truck market, with a bit role played by Toyota Motor Corp. and its limited-reach Tundra (see chart below), which still is not regarded as a true fullsize model and is not seen by Nissan executives as a competitor for Titan.
“We have to conquest about 70% to 75% of our (Titan) buyers,” admits Larry Dominique, chief product specialist for Titan and the man most familiar not only with Titan's engineering, but its marketing as well.
So it appears Nissan thinks the best thing to do, at first, is to make exactly what the bulk of truck buyers actually buy.
The 100,000-unit annual sales Nissan initially projects for Titan is a fraction of the 800,000-plus light-duty pickups sold by both Ford and GM. But if a minimum of 70,000 Titan sales essentially must come from among the Big Three, somebody in Detroit's going to get hurt.
Dominique says Nissan knows about 13% of its current Frontier (compact pickup) owners move up to fullsize pickups, and to now, Nissan's “had nothing for them to go to.” But he says even though Titan now gives Frontier owners an option to stay with the brand, Nissan hardly can assume all will do so.
Thus, Nissan's expectation that 70,000 or more future Titan owners will have to be lured away from the domestics. Jed Connelly, Nissan senior vice president-sales and marketing, cites the well-known loyalty of pickup buyers and acknowledges Titan's need for such a high conquest rate means a tough sales job lies ahead.
“It's going to be difficult to conquest those people,” Connelly tells Ward's. “We probably will be more inclined to intercept people on the way into a fullsize truck. We have a place for Japanese car buyers to go. They're already predisposed to Japanese product, and if they need a fullsize truck, we'll be there.”
Dominique says Nissan's exhaustive research into the “unmet needs” of today's pickup owners has led to a Nissan truck that will at least sway those loyal owners of domestic brands. He says the study of pickup owners began more than two years ago and helped Nissan engineers and planners develop features and functionality that aren't typical for contemporary pickups.
Chief among them is the “versatility bed” package, which offers myriad options to configure the bed area for a variety of needs — many for the so-called “lifestyle” user who did not buy the truck for some quasi-commercial purpose. The versatility bed package includes C-channels along three surfaces so tie-downs and clamps can be conveniently employed, as well as a thoughtful, lockable storage area in the outboard quarter panel, a place where items such as trailer-hitch balls or jumper cables can be secured.
The package also offers the ability to configure the bed to — finally — simply handle a week's haul from the grocery store. This, say Nissan sources, is a crucial function still largely ignored by most fullsize pickups.
Dominique says Nissan expects fully 50% of Titan buyers to opt for the bed package, which will be offered as part of other option packages or as a stand-alone option.
The versatility bed will not be available, however, on the base “E” model, the lowest of four trim levels that ascend from E to XE, SE and top-of-the-line LE. The E model, says Nissan, will account for only about 4% of sales; XE will go to about 22% of buyers; the SE trim level is expected to account for the bulk of sales at 55%, leaving about 19% of Titan's mix for the top LE trim.
Nissan's not known for shirking from the chance to install competitive drivelines, and the Titan's no exception. All Titans will be powered by an all-aluminum 5.6L DOHC V-8 — one only loosely related to the 4.5L unit from Infiniti's car/crossover lines — developing more than 300 hp and 375 lb.-ft. (509 Nm) of torque. It's backed by a standard 5-speed automatic transmission — an item unavailable from any of the domestics save Dodge (the light-duty Ram now offers the swap-shifting 5-45RFE as the only available tranny with the new Hemi Magnum 5.7L V-8). Forget a 5-speed auto even with Ford's all-new '04 F-Series, which, incidentally, also launches late this year (more about this head-on collision in a moment).
The 5-speed likely is one of the reasons the Titan, according to Dominique, is expected to be best-in-class in terms of combined city/highway fuel economy. The other is weight: “We did a lot of things to take weight out,” he adds. The new F-Series, by contrast, is about 500 lbs. (227 kg) heavier than the outgoing model, which doesn't bode well for performance comparisons with the Titan.
Titan will have one wheelbase (139.8 ins. [355 cm]), two cab styles — King Cab and Crew Cab — and two bed lengths, 5.5 ft. (1.7 m) for Crew Cab bodies and 6.5 ft. (2 m) for King Cab models. The King Cab's rear-hinged back doors employ a unique, 4-plane hinge that allows them to open an unprecedented 168 degrees, providing an opening that in a tight parking lot doesn't trap you between the front and rear doors. The Crew Cab offers four fullsize doors, but dictates the use of the smaller, 5.5-ft. bed.
Okay, let's assume the Titan is competitive from a design/features/driveline standpoint. Can it steal 70% of sales from those dominant domestics — including an all-new version of the F-Series, the segment's decades-long best-seller, which is launching virtually at the same time?
“Our specs stand on their own,” says a confident Dominique. “We don't have to bow our heads in any category.” He admits Nissan will face some of the Tundra factor — nobody at the job site wants to be first to pull up with a non-domestic fullsize pickup. “Nobody wants to have to make excuses” for deviating from the norm in such a conformist segment, he admits.
But Titan will be different because unlike the seven-eighths-scale Tundra, it's fully competitive with the big boys right from the start, he says (it may not stay that way with Tundra, either: We're told the next-generation Tundra, to be built at Toyota's just-announced plant in San Antonio, TX, will be a fullsizer in every sense).
Once the ice is broken, Dominique says Titan, because it's a no-excuses pickup, will be an easier sell.
But Dominque confesses the initial lineup hardly is a full-coverage proposition, so the domestics, including the new F-Series, will have an inherent advantage because of their vast model ranges.
For example, he says the lack of a 6-cyl. engine means Nissan must cede all entry-level buyers. Nissan's considering a V-6 for the future, but he says the current passenger-car V-6 “isn't necessarily the best application for a fullsize truck.”
“A V-6 turbodiesel would be nice,” he says, but admits Nissan currently has no suitable diesel in its worldwide engine portfolio.
Connelly, too, is confident the launch of the new F-Series won't hinder Nissan's Titan rollout. The F-Series may bring additional attention to the segment, he says, which may actually help Nissan (we've heard this before from other auto makers and we still don't totally buy it).
|Ford F-Series ('04)
|Bed length (ins.)
|Overall length (ins.)
|Overall width (ins.)
|Max tow (lbs.)
|Note: All with shortest available or required bed
|Nissan: King Cab bodystyle; Ford: Crew Cab bodystyle
Chevrolet: Extended Cab bodystyle; Dodge: Quad Cab bodystyle
In the end, it probably would be better if Nissan didn't have to go head-to-head with the new F-Series. But Connelly expresses confidence in the Titan's development and the perceived quality. The company promises Titan will bring to the segment largely ignored passenger car-like quality levels, particularly for interior materials and fit and finish.
“Trucks are expensive and people vote with their dollars,” says Connelly.
“(With a high-quality truck) you'll get on their consideration list.”