The engine spouts a raspy roar as I point the long, silver hood down the slim country road. The thin, wooden steering wheel is light in my hands as I downshift coming to a turn. This early 1970s-era Datsun 240Z, in pristine condition, is light and lithe on these twisty, tree-shrouded routes; it's a perfect driver's car. I'm in heaven.
But while Nissan, née Datsun, may embrace its past, it doesn't live in it. At this gathering, on the outskirts of Nashville at a palatial mansion estate home to the television show Nashville, the Japanese car maker assembled not just a handful of its historic cars, but also its entire North American lineup, from the tiny Micra up to the gigantic Titan pickup. Among the vehicles here are a few that offer a glimpse at the future of Nissan.
From April, 2013, to this past April, the company sold more than 100,000 Nissans and Infinitis in Canada for the first time, growing sales by 28 per cent in the calendar year to date. And to keep the ball rolling, it has a few new vehicles in the pipeline.
Among those are a Frontier mid-sized pickup with a Cummins diesel engine and the Qashqai, a compact crossover based on the Rogue platform; both are just under evaluation for entering the Canadian market. The Frontier, a concept that debuted at the Chicago Auto Show earlier this year, would be aimed at those who don't need a full-sized truck but need the extra gumption for towing or other heavy-duty applications the 2.8-litre diesel provides. The Qashqai, meanwhile, is a mainstream vehicle in Europe and elsewhere, and has proven to be popular; it could compete with the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Hyundai Tucson, among others. The compact crossover segment is so hot in Canada that it's almost assured Nissan will bring the Qashqai here.
For more performance, Nissan will be bringing the 370Z Nismo and the GT-R Nismo to Canada at the end of the year. The GT-R Nismo – the fastest ever GT-R – is rated at 600 horsepower and 481 lb-ft of torque from its twin-turbo, 3.8-litre V-6, with a price of $149,990 (U.S.); no Canadian specs or pricing have been confirmed. The 370Z Nismo has 350 hp and 276 lb-ft of torque from its 3.7-litre V-6, costing $43,020 – again, no Canadian specs or pricing are available.
One of the most important vehicles for Nissan's future is gleaming in burnt orange at the mansion's front door. The 2015 Murano crossover debuted as a concept at the 2013 Detroit motor show, and the production version has changed little from that swoopy concept to what will be in showrooms later this year. It's a sharper, dramatic and aggressive forecast of what Nissan's design theme will be for its lineup. Even the interior, with this model swathed in various shades of white, is an artistic and luxurious divergence of the company's current cars.
"The Murano is, for us, really a pinnacle vehicle in terms of what Nissan can accomplish," says Bert Brooks, senior manager of product planning for Nissan Canada. "It's so much like a concept vehicle, it's clearly a more emotional kind of vehicle. It's meant to appeal to someone looking for a strong design statement. Even the body stamping, to have that hard crease along the side, requires a lot of innovation, down to the tooling and how it's produced. That's the kind of thing that's typically would not be done by a mainstream manufacturer, it would be more of a premium, luxury approach. The interior of this car is a very high level, very premium.
"The Murano is interesting," Brooks says, "because it's one of these vehicles that pulls in cross-shopping from other brands that we wouldn't typical target. We see people shopping this vehicle alongside Lexus, for example. It's a great opportunity for us there."
Another vehicle unveiled in Nashville was the updated Juke compact crossover. The Juke has been a good seller for Nissan, but this model, which sports revised front and rear ends, will offer something extra for the Canadian market. Buyers will have the option of customizing the colours of various body parts – the wheels, headlight surrounds, mirrors, and other accents – to their own tastes, in a nod to the Juke's pursuit of the youth market.
Later this year, Nissan will also introduce "significant" changes to its Sentra compact car. Brooks says the small car is vital to Nissan's success here. "The compact segment we recognize as super important in Canada, so that's where we see a lot of opportunity for improvement in our performance. There is a lot of focus right now on what we can do to improve the Sentra's performance in that segment."
While it won't be an all-new model, Brooks says the Sentra will be different from what is in showrooms today. "We can't disclose too much. But we intend to make some pretty remarkable changes in that vehicle line to help improve sales. Later this year we'll be unveiling that information, along with an implementation date."
He does disclose that there may be a change to the body style. "Apart from the king player, the Honda Civic, those other cars [in the compact segment] offer more than just a sedan body style, so that's something that we're noticing, let's say. So that's an area that, in order for us to continue to grow, we need to improve our performance in that segment."
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