Nissan exported its Datsun small cars to become the automaker’s ambassador brand in North America 60 years ago, but not before replacing Joseph “the Prince of Darkness” Lucas’s electrical systems with reliable Japanese components.
Innovative engineering helped make the British Austin-inspired Bluebird a minor curiosity when it landed here. By 1971 Datsun was the top-selling import automaker in Canada, offering exceptional cars like the Datsun 510 and the 240Z sports car. In an alignment with its global brand, the Datsun nameplate was replaced with the Nissan badge in 1985.
The 1990s weren’t kind to Nissan. Financial difficulties prompted it to form an alliance with France’s Renault in 1999, which paved the way for Carlos Ghosn to bring his cost-cutting skills to Japan. He spearheaded an aggressive downsizing campaign that brought Nissan back from the brink of bankruptcy.
Ghosn stepped down as Nissan president in 2017, and was dismissed outright in 2018 following his arrest for allegedly underreporting his income to Japanese authorities. Ghosn’s fall from grace – he had been an executive rock star in Japan – seemed to cast a shadow in showrooms. Nissan’s global sales fell 10.6 per cent last year, although it may have had more to do with the automaker’s aging product line.
Enter Steve Milette, president of Nissan Canada, who joined the firm in 2017 as vice-president of sales operations. He acknowledges that Nissan needed a deep rethink, which formed the basis for the Nissan NEXT product plan, unveiled earlier in 2020. Glimpses of the next-generation Z sports car, the Ariya electric crossover SUV, and redesigned Kicks, Rogue and other models have piqued buyers’ interest.
“Nissan NEXT is our transformational plan. Not only does it signal a new business approach, it’s also about changing the culture of the company,” says Milette. Central to the plan is the launch of 10 all-new and redesigned models over 20 months – an ambitious timetable that promises to make up for lost time.
Canadians have already seen some of the new wheels gathering in Nissan’s showrooms. The official launch of the redesigned Rogue – Nissan’s biggest volume seller – got a rousing reception from Nissan dealers.
“The new Rogue goes head-to-head with the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, yet it’s a class above in terms of fit and finish, along with its luxury cues,” says Milette. “It’s generated a lot of excitement and positive media coverage for us.”
The redesigned Sentra arrived at the worst possible moment – just as the pandemic lockdown began in mid-March – yet sales of the compact sedan grew by 44 per cent right out of the gate, Milette points out. The 2021 Sentra has already received a boost in content, while the sporty SR variant features a manual transmission at a time when the stickshift may very become a museum piece.
Sometimes corporate plans require culling the field. The diminutive Micra subcompact has been unceremoniously dropped from Nissan’s lineup – production ended in Mexico in December 2019 – although dealers had enough stock to sell it through 2020.
Budget-minded buyers might lament the demise of the $10,000 Micra, but Milette says Nissan has resurrected the Versa sedan as the replacement entry-level model – although its starting price of $16,495 doesn’t have quite the same appeal.
Milette counters that the 2021 Versa is packed with value, including air conditioning and helpful driver-assist safety features such as lane departure warning and pedestrian detection. It’s also a considerably bigger sedan than the tiny Micra hatchback.
“The all-new Versa is part of our one-two punch in the sedan segment, offering the subcompact Versa and compact Sentra to buyers on a budget,” explains Milette. “Our dealers also saw an opportunity for fleet sales with the Versa.”
Milette notes that Canadians are a little more preoccupied with the “quest for value” than our American neighbours, which is why Nissan is keen to plumb the economy end of the market. The redesigned 2021 Kicks represents another entry-level product, this time in the hot-selling subcompact crossover segment.
“One of the effects of the pandemic is the movement towards low-cost commuter vehicles,” says Milette. Having embraced the work-at-home trend, city dwellers are relocating to the countryside – a groundswell that has more Millennials taking up car ownership for the first time. Nissan wants to be their car company with affordable “gateway” models like the Versa and Kicks.
Nissan is more than just economy cars, of course. It’s revamping its entire lineup with an eye to sparking excitement in a brand that’s sometimes been overlooked by shoppers. To do that, Nissan revisited its legacy nameplates.
It may not have broken the Internet, but the Z Proto reveal in September certainly generated some buzz. Video of a pearlescent yellow sports coupe carving up a test track has been viewed 1.4 million times, representing more than a few driving enthusiasts pining for a sleek, twin-turbo sports car.
“They could have made another SUV. We are glad they didn’t,” reads one grateful post online. The retro-styled Z is expected to be released in the first half of 2022.
Just unveiled is the 2021 Armada luxury SUV, a true body-on-frame sport utility that’s more chiseled and hard-edged than the outgoing model. The Frontier mid-size pickup will be redesigned for the first time in 16 years, powered by a new 3.8-litre V-6 that debuted in the 2020 model. And slotting between the little Kicks and the compact Rogue is the Qashqai crossover, the 2022 version sporting the Rogue’s headlight treatment and a more tapered greenhouse.
Key to Nissan’s future – and that of every automaker – is electrification. But unlike many manufacturers, the Japanese company has a past in this segment. After all, it’s the maker of the world’s bestselling all-electric car, the Leaf.
“We just marked the 10th anniversary of the introduction of the Nissan Leaf, with one-half million sold around the world to date,” notes Milette. “As pioneers in the EV space, we’re committed to electrification.”
Leafs have accumulated 16 billion kilometres to date and kept an estimated 2.5 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, Milette adds. Nissan intends to build on its momentum by selling one million electrified vehicles by 2023, thanks to its upcoming model, the Ariya.
This all-electric crossover will feature a choice of front-wheel or all-wheel drive, and two battery choices: standard 65 kWh with an output of 160 kW (215 horsepower) and a battery range of 321 km, or a 90 kWh pack with 290 kW (389 hp) of output with a range of 482 km. Not to mention the Ariya looks very cool.
Beyond its revamped product line, Nissan is striving to change the customer experience.
Its new Nissan Studio provides consumers with an up-close look at the bestselling models on display in a futuristic “product salon.” Physical vehicles are surrounded with an array of technology and accessory feature displays. The interactive website lets visitors speak with experts in real-time, and participate in one-on-one sessions or live product group tours in either English or French.
“Our showrooms will be different,” says Milette. “The recipes of the past are not the recipes of the future.”