After the Tokyo Motor Show, Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. invited a hundred or so journalists to its design centre in Ishehara, Japan, to talk about its next generation of vehicles. After a presentation, they were invited to agree to an off-the-record preview and demonstration of the automaker’s upcoming cars and SUVs.
“We’ve never done this before. This is a first-ever glimpse of what we’re doing in the future,” said Dan Passe, Nissan’s general manager for global product communications. “You cannot talk about which vehicles you’ve seen, how many vehicles you’ve seen, what they’ve been powered by, what their names are. Basically nothing. It’s just going to be, ‘I saw a glimpse into the future.’ But that’s it.
“Unfortunately, we’re in a situation right now where there are a lot of i’s [to be figuratively dotted] and we want to give you the background of where this company is going and where we’re moving as brands, and how we’re going to be moving forward over the next few years. We ask for your confidentiality in doing that.”
What was the reason for this, if a journalist could not then communicate the information? Clearly, it’s that Nissan’s priority right now is to prove to the world it has a long-term future in the automotive industry and isn’t going away any time soon.
It’s been a very, very difficult year for the Japanese brand since its high-profile chairman, Carlos Ghosn, was arrested in Tokyo last November. He was charged with financial misconduct in failing to properly report his executive compensation. He was freed on bail in April, but then arrested again the next day and charged with breach of trust. Ghosn was eventually released again on bail after a total of 129 days behind bars. He’s prohibited from travelling and even seeing his wife, and his court case is expected next spring. If convicted, he faces a hefty fine and up to 15 years in prison.
Ghosn, 65, maintains his innocence on all charges and, through his lawyers, insists that the Japanese government is plotting against him. Ghosn says Japan was concerned that Nissan, and potentially Mitsubishi, might be taken over by French automaker Renault. He had created a global corporate alliance between them and was the chairman of all three. Renault owns 43 per cent of Nissan, but Nissan owns only 15 per cent of Renault’s non-voting shares.
Whether Ghosn is guilty or innocent, it’s a massive fall from grace for such a high flier. The three companies scrambled to distance themselves from him, but while Renault and Mitsubishi have been relatively unscathed, he’s tied very closely here in the public eye to Nissan. He was so popular that he was even featured as the hero of a Japanese manga comic book, but revelations of his once-lavish lifestyle have soured his reputation.
“In Japan, you have no idea what it was like,” says Pierre Loing, Nissan’s division general manager for product marketing. “It affected the [sales] traffic and people stopped going to the dealerships. At some point in time, they might have had a problem with trusting the company. But we’ve been very resilient, and [being resilient with innovation] is a positive side to this negative situation.”
Nissan is Japan’s second-largest automaker (after Toyota), but its stock has plunged 20 per cent this year. The company recently announced job cuts of 12,500 from its worldwide work force of about 140,000. It didn’t help when its interim chief executive officer, Hiroto Saikawa, was himself accused of failing to properly report his earnings and forced to resign in September.
A new CEO will be appointed before the end of this year to turn things around. Makoto Uchida, Nissan’s former head of operations in China, is known for his international experience, and his management style has earned him the moniker “a foreigner with a Japanese face.” A new chief operating officer was also named, Ashwani Gupta. Both once worked for Renault. Both are seen as heralding a change in direction for the automaker.
Nissan was struggling 20 years ago when Ghosn was appointed, and he was considered its saviour through ruthless cost-cutting and collaborative efficiencies. However, his embrace of incentives in North America to raise market share at seemingly any cost was scaled right back after his ouster. One of his global initiatives was to revive Datsun as an entry-level nameplate for Nissan in some of the world’s less wealthy countries, but reports this month speculated that Nissan will kill the brand. At the presentation here to media, however, the company denied this.
“We’re going to keep working with Datsun,” said Ivan Espinosa, Nissan’s corporate vice-president for global product strategy and product planning. “We have six cars in the Datsun portfolio and we’re present in several markets, so we’re keeping involved with Datsun as part of the Nissan brand.”
Canada is not affected by Datsun’s existence, but we will see the new global designs for Nissan and Infiniti vehicles. The Nissan Ariya electric crossover is the first to show the different look, and although the car seen on stage at the Tokyo Motor Show last week was officially a concept, Nissan concedes that it’s very close to the final vehicle that will debut next year, probably at the New York Auto Show.
The Ariya has a sleek look that’s accented with wide fenders and thin LED headlights at the front, and with a steeply raked C-pillar at the back. The paint on its roofline and wheels is a deep copper, a new signature colour for the brand – “the colour of the sun as it breaks through the night to start a new day. It symbolizes the dawn of a new automotive era,” waxes the press release.
“We wanted to ensure that the soul of every Nissan car possesses a distinctive Japanese DNA conveyed in a simple-yet-powerfully modern way, something we call ‘timeless Japanese futurism,’” says Nissan’s senior vice president for global design, Alfonso Albaisa.
It’s no accident that the emphasis on the Japanese look stresses the brand’s national heritage, as in “not French,” like Renault.
“We want to be perceived as a Japanese innovative brand, and innovation that is accessible to a wide number of people,” Loing says. “This is what has been working in Japan for the last 2½ years, despite the difficult situation from a corporate point of view for the company.
“We probably still have to work our way through, [but] we are helped and we will be more and more helped with the sequence of [new] products. This is why this auto show is so important for us. It’s like, now, it’s the new era.”
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