The 2013 Nissan Altima was something of a tease when it rolled into showrooms a few weeks ago. We'll call it the start of a product blitz at Nissan and its premium brand, Infiniti, one intended to push the combined Nissan/Infiniti share of the Canadian market to 8 per cent.
Nissan Canada has a long way to go. As of the end of October, Infiniti had 0.5 per cent market share in Canada, while the Nissan brand was at 4.5 per cent. In a Canadian new-car/light-truck market booming along, with sales up 6.8 per cent on the year, Nissan brand sales are down 2 per cent, though Infiniti's are up 17.4. It is only speculation to suggest that Nissan Canada's desultory performance is linked to the recent retirement of Nissan Canada president Allen Childs after barely two years on the job.
Childs' replacement should have no excuses for a sales performance that for years has lagged the industry, not with all the new models and derivatives coming in the next two years.
So, to the tease. The Altima arrived in showrooms at the end of the summer as Nissan Canada's most fuel-efficient vehicle, short of the all-electric Leaf. Altima fuel economy improved by 20 per cent over the outgoing version, while horsepower actually went up.
The Altima is proof that Nissan is serious about making fuel economy leadership a pillar of the company's new-model blitz, one continuing this fall with the launch of an all-new 2013 Sentra compact sedan, an all-new 2013 Pathfinder SUV and an all-new 2013 Versa hatchback. In each instance, Nissan is aiming to carve out its place with an increasingly fuel-conscious buying public.
Each new Nissan must not just look sleek, modern and innovative, it must also be an industry leader in three key areas: low vehicle weight; aerodynamic design; powertrain engineering. Nissan wants its new engines not only to run smoothly, but also to be leaders in reducing internal friction that wastes fuel. Transmissions? Nissan has pioneered fuel-efficient continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) that reduce fuel consumption by about 5 per cent.
There's more. Coming soon enough is Nissan's own gasoline-electric hybrid model or models. Up to now, Nissan's only hybrid was the discontinued Altima with its licensed Toyota hybrid technology. Those days are done. Nissan is also going to make further use of direct fuel injection, and high-performance models will combine direct injection with turbocharging, as we've already seen in the Juke small crossover.
The details of Nissan's product renaissance will be interesting to watch as they unfold. According to trade journal Automotive News, next year Nissan plans to completely redesign the Rogue compact crossover, a critical model in Canada. The Frontier pickup, the Xterra SUV and the Juke are also due for a re-skin.
On the Infiniti side, the critical G line – sedan, coupe and convertible – is due for a remake for the 2014 model year, the industry publication says. As well, an all-electric Infiniti based on the Leaf's architecture is expected, while the M sedan is due for a freshening, we're told.
The G remake is especially critical. The G has never sold in numbers that reflect how good the car really is. And the rear-drive G is an excellent entry-level luxury car (all-wheel-drive is also available). Yet while the rival BMW 3-Series occasionally cracks the list of Top 10 best-selling cars in Canada – as was the case in September – the G merely muddles along. Done properly, a new G could easily turbocharge Infiniti's sales.
And that's long overdue. Infiniti remains an underperforming asset at Nissan. In Canada, Infiniti sales amount to less than half of Audi's (16,943 for Audi through the end of October, versus 6,926 for Infiniti, according to DesRosiers Automotive Consultants). Only a few years ago, Audi and Infiniti were neck-and-neck in the sales race.
But while Audi has been storming the market with new models, Infiniti has been plodding along cautiously. The point is, turnarounds – quick ones – are always possible with premium brands because upscale buyers crave the newest, sexiest vehicles and are willing to pay for them. The trick here is to nail the products.
Nissan also needs to make significant and consistent quality improvements. Nissan and Infiniti don't offer troublesome vehicles, but neither brand stands out, either. Take the latest, just-released Consumer Reports 2012 Annual Auto Reliability Survey. Infiniti ranked ninth out of 28 brands, a drop of two spots from the year before, while the Nissan brand landed right in the middle of the pack at No. 13, dropping four places from 2011's survey.
"Nissan and its Infiniti luxury brand performed well overall," notes CR, "but a few models kept them from ranking with the other Japanese nameplates. Nissan's Versa sedan, redesigned for 2012, was much worse than average, as was the large Armada SUV. The Titan pickup truck was also below par. Of the seven Infiniti models, only the convertible version of the G scored below average." And the Leaf, the first all-electric car in the survey, earned a top reliability score.
So Nissan certainly knows how to bake in first-rate reliability, even if its quality scores from CR and others, including J.D. Power and Associates, are mediocre at best. Nissan also knows how make money. Nissan has remained profitable through the recession and even as the company weathered the same earthquake, tsunami and flooding challenges that rocked both Toyota and Honda, setting back sales at both – a reversal of fortune from which both are only now recovering.
We've had enough of the Nissan/Infiniti tease. At times, Nissan seems close to breaking through with cutting-edge designs and technology, only to fall back to uninspired sales results. Sure, both Nissan and Infiniti boast excellent resale values, largely a reflection of the company's financial discipline. But there remains something lacking – a buzz, a sexiness, that triggers a wave of excitement among buyers.
Tease us too long, Nissan, titillate us just a little too much, Infiniti, and we just might lose interest.