Tuesday, July 19, 2005
Nissan refines styling approach in midcycle face-lift
By Christine Tierney / The Detroit News
How far is too far? It's a delicate balancing act for Nissan Motor Co. With its bold styling, Nissan has dispelled the stereotype that Japanese vehicles come through on reliability but fall short on excitement.
Its Infiniti G35 coupe and the Nissan 350Z sports car are hot.
But sometimes -- and the radical Quest minivan is an obvious case -- Nissan has gone too far. U.S. consumers stuck with more conservative alternatives from Chrysler, Dodge, Toyota and Honda, and the Quest never came close to meeting its targets.
Nissan plans substantial changes, such as improving the instrument panel layout, as part of a mid-cycle facelift. Its executives also sent the new Sentra back for design changes, delaying the launch after concluding that the car didn't look right.
Nissan isn't dialing down its styling approach, says Shiro Nakamura, the automaker's chief designer for the past six years.
But it is refining it, focusing on improving interiors and curtailing quantum-leap innovations in segments that are conservative by nature, such as minivans and sports cars.
"You can't go too far beyond people's expectations," says Nakamura. "The 350Z is very modern, but it maintains authentic sports car proportions. Sedans have been around for a long time, so we have to go carefully.
"SUVs and crossovers are where the market accepts the most radical changes, because there is no classic design" in these vehicles, he said.
"We don't want to take risks, but we don't want to be conservative" either, he said.
Nissan has reworked the Sentra, adjusting the size and shape of the windows, to improve the proportions. But the car will look quite fresh, compared with its rivals, he says.
Now Nissan is adapting a compact it sells in Japan for a new entry-level car for the U.S. market below the Sentra.
Nissan is adjusting the styling, especially around the wheels, to give the compact a more dynamic stance to help it compete in a market dominated by large vehicles. "Here, a small car really looks small," Nakamura said. There's also room to innovate because the compact segment has not been fully exploited in the U.S. market.
Like BMW, Nissan wants to be on the cutting-edge of design, even at the risk of shocking some potential car buyers.
Overall, that strategy has served Nissan well. In the past two years, its sales have grown sharply in the U.S. market, outpacing those of rivals Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co.
In a J.D. Power and Associates survey of mid-size car buyers, more than a fourth of Nissan Altima's buyers chose the car because of its dynamic styling, as opposed to fewer than 5 percent who bought the Toyota Camry or Honda Accord for their design attributes. "Clearly the Altima is the styling winner," said Chris Denove, a partner at J.D. Power.
"A smaller brand can afford a polarizing design. It's OK to get one person to say, I'd never own a car like that as long as you get someone who would walk on hot coals to own a car like that."