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Nissan's new wave of innovation Add to ...

Innovation is Nissan. Nissan is innovation. At least that’s what Nissan Motor wants the world to believe.

As always in the car business, however, the proof is in the product not the marketing spin. Nissan’s company types know this and are embracing the basic truth of the car-selling game.

Thus, Nissan Motor is planning to introduce a new hydrogen fuel cell vehicle by 2015.

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And Nismo, Nissan’s motorsport arm, wants to follow in the tire tracks of BMW’s M division and Mercedes’ AMG with a so-called “skunk works” tuning arm for road cars.

And Nissan will soon have a wireless recharging station for its Leaf electric vehicle (EV).

And let’s not overlook the fact that Nissan is committed to introducing 15 new technologies a year for the foreseeable future – technologies such as a front-mounted radar system able to sense when a vehicle two cars ahead starts to brake, thus giving drivers more time to avoid nose-to-tail shunts.

Put all of this under the umbrella term, “innovation.” That’s what the company wants you to associate with the word “Nissan.”

“Nissan’s policy is not to concentrate on certain key technologies and ignore others,” says Mitsuhiko Yamashita, the company’s head of research and development. “We have 20,000 engineers worldwide working on lots of new technology and we will prioritize market by market and segment by segment.”

The Leaf may be the flagship technology in Nissan’s fleet and a rolling example of what Japan’s No. 3 auto maker is capable of doing, but it is by no means the whole story. For the full plan you’ll need to turn to Power 88, the latest five-year extravaganza or numbers and targets and goals introduced last June by Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn.

Ghosn, who is also CEO of alliance partner Renault of France, loves plans with very clear, numerical objective by which the company can measure success. Power 88 sets Nissan on course to grab 8 per cent of global market share by the spring of 2017, up from 5.8 per cent now, while introducing new models and technology at a rapid-fire pace.

Innovation from top to bottom is the key. For buyers, that means you can look for one new Nissan or Infiniti vehicle every six weeks, on average. Nissan plans to introduce 90 new technologies for an average of 15 a year for the next five years. As well, between now and 2017, Nissan wants to sell 1.5 million EVs and expand the Infiniti lineup to 10 models from seven. Ambitious? Add this piece: company CEO Carlos Ghosn also wants to see Nissan reduce costs by 5 per cent a year and achieve profits equal to 8 per cent of sales. Power 88: 8 per cent market share and an 8 per cent return on sales.

A tall order, to be sure. In Canada, the job seems particularly daunting. Yet Nissan Canada strategy boss Ian Forsyth insists the company believes it can grab 8 per cent of the market and perhaps before 2017.

“Sure, why not?” he says.

Well, perhaps because the Nissan brand commands just 4.9 per cent of the Canadian market and the Infiniti brand has 0.4 per cent, according to DesRosiers Automotive Consultants leading into last December. A 61 per cent jump in market share over the next five years seems like an astonishingly tall order.

To put it another way, Honda outsells Nissan by about 30 per cent in Canada and globally that’s unusual. Nissan outsells Honda everywhere the two brands compete except in Canada, the United States and Thailand. Nissan, in fact, is aiming for 10 per cent of the U.S. market using a smaller number of high-volume models to get there. The product plan is virtually identical in Canada and because Canadians are not Americans, using a raft of U.S.-style products to get great results in Canada seems almost an impossible task for Nissan Canada.

Consider: At present Nissan Canada does not have a single model ranked among the top 10 best-selling cars or light trucks. Nissan needs to put one or two models among the market leaders, without a doubt, and that’s never happened before.

Here and everywhere else, of course, Nissan’s strategy is to leverage research and development investments over the past five years into market share gains around the world, apparently expecting the world’s buyers to act like, from Canada to Thailand to the U.S., Japan, China and Europe.

“We are going to continue to work on innovation and new product,” Ghosn recently told Automotive News. “For the first time in our lives we are on the same level as the best. There is the potential for the company to be very big, particularly in the U.S.”

In a nutshell, Ghosn believes the coming wave of new products will land in various sweet spots, loaded with innovative features, avant garde styling and outstanding “green” performance – whether it’s an EV, a gasoline-electric hybrid, a fuel cell car or something powered by a traditional internal combustion engine.

So here’s what’s coming. Over the next 24 months, Nissan will launch a new Versa hatchback, Sentra compact car and Altima mid-size car, along with a car-based Pathfinder SUV (sport-utility vehicle) and other products, including a refreshed Frontier mid-size pickup. Next spring, Infiniti dealers will start selling an Audi Q7 rival called the JX crossover, too.

“We have a very strong focus on our core segments going forward,” says Andy Palmer, who heads product planning globally at Nissan.

In Canada, the next Sentra is the most important new model launch. The compact car segment is crucial here and the current Sentra, say dealers, is a lamentable product incapable of going head-to-head with the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra and others.

Rumor has it that the next Sentra will not have such an angular look and fuel economy will be much better. The new Pathfinder will also have a smoother design and by using car-based construction, fuel economy will be better, as will ride quality compared to the outgoing model.

What buyers should not expect to see is a raft of smaller volume, niche models coming from Nissan and don’t expect Canada-only cars, either. Ghosn, for one – and he’s the one who counts most of all – says Nissan has all the bases covered in terms of its lineup, top to bottom. Now he wants home runs from each of them.

“Frankly, we’re covering practically the whole segment of the market,” he told Automotive News. “We have one of the largest product offerings in the market today. Small cars, sedan, sports car, luxury, 4x4, trucks, commercial vehicle.

“My concern is not so much do we have holes in our product offering. It is, do we have overlaps?” he says, adding that he wants “a limited number of cars with very big volumes to sustain the brand. We have good prospects today. We have the Altima, which is a brand builder; we have the Versa, which is a brand builder; we have the Sentra, which is a brand builder. We have the Rogue, which is also a brand builder.

“I want cars, big volumes. A lot of cars (selling) small volumes – that doesn’t work anymore.”

Innovation does, though, and it will get Nissan to the Power 88 goals, even in Canada.

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