To succeed beyond the Altima, Nissan must strike a careful balance. The brand must appeal to more mainstream buyers while continuing to please fans of its quirkier models, such as the Cube, which looks like a melting Jeep Wrangler, or the Juke, whose threatening top is paired with bulbous, frog-like wheels.
"I had no interest in buying boringly styled cars," says Beth Thompson, 45, a corporate trainer from Princeton, Mass., who is thrilled with the Juke's edgy design and peppy ride.
Quirky designs can work on small-volume, niche products like the Cube, which sold just over 2,000 in the first quarter. But IHS Automotive analyst Rebecca Lindland thinks Nissan's aggressive styling has hurt sales on vehicles that attract more conservative buyers. Take the family minivan: Sales of Toyota's Sienna are five times those of Nissan's angular, tough-looking Quest.
"They push the envelope on products where people really don't want the envelope pushed," Lindland says.
Another issue, Lindland says, is that Nissan lacks a consistent design, so even fans of the Juke can't find another Nissan product that resembles it. Other automakers, like Ford or BMW, have a consistent look. The driver of a Ford car, such as a Fusion, will be drawn to the same grille on a Ford Explorer when it's time to buy a larger vehicle.
Scott Shirley, the chief marketing manager for Nissan in North America, says the new products will make Nissan's lineup work together better in buyers' eyes.
"There will be no weaknesses," he says. "Historically we haven't been as consistent or focused."
Nissan has been selling cars in the U.S. since 1958, the same year as Toyota and 12 years before Honda. The company sold small cars under the Datsun brand until the mid-1980s, winning customers with sporty yet economical models like the 240Z. Nissan-badged cars like the Maxima were hits in the early 1990s, but as the company floundered financially, so did its products. From 1997 to 2002, Nissan stopped selling its Z sports cars here while it focused on trucks and big SUVs. That hurt its reputation for sportiness, says Jack Nerad, editorial director of Kelley Blue Book.
Nissan's luxury Infiniti division has struggled to get noticed, too, in the hotly contested luxury market. Infiniti sales fell 6 percent in the first quarter. Nissan plans a similar product offensive to boost that brand, starting with the Infiniti JX three-row crossover this spring.
Rick Berry, a Nissan dealer in Holbrook, Ariz., says he can't wait to get ahold of the new Altima, which he thinks will win buyers with its improved interior and luxurious styling. Berry says Nissan has a history of relying on deals — and not great cars — to sell its products. But the new cars are changing that, he says, and making the company more confident.
At the New York Auto Show Wednesday, Ghosn said Nissan has consistently gained market U.S. market share for the last six years, despite economic turmoil and last year's earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
"The progress demonstrates that Nissan can sustain significant growth for long periods through many obstacles," he said.
Still, Nissan relies far more heavily on incentives than its Japanese rivals. Nissan's incentive spending jumped above $2,000 per vehicle in 2006 and has never gone back down, according to auto information site Edmunds.com. Nissan spent an estimated $2,459 per vehicle on incentives in March, or $300 more than the industry average. By comparison, Honda spent $954.
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