Nissan Motor Co (>> Nissan Motor) is proving that being late to the party in China doesn't have to be a handicap, and is poised to widen its lead among Japanese automakers in the world's biggest car market with speedy and aggressive expansion plans.
Despite being among the last global automakers to enter the Chinese market, Nissan outsold Toyota Motor Corp (>> Toyota Motor Corp.) to become the top Japanese light-vehicle brand there last year for the first time, according to research firm LMC Automotive.
Aiding Nissan's climb have been its cooperative partnership with state-owned Dongfeng Motor Group (>> Dongfeng Motor Group) in the heavily regulated market.
It is also benefitting from an early foray into the booming inland regions and a full product line-up ranging from premium Infiniti-brand cars to light commercial vehicles and compacts such as the popular Tiida model.
After a bumper 2011, Nissan's local joint venture, Dongfeng Motor Co, was the fastest-growing automaker in China in the first quarter of 2012, growing 16 percent in a market that fell 0.3 percent from the year before.
In another step to accelerate its growth, Nissan this week unveiled at the Beijing auto show the first production model under its joint venture's own, entry-level Venucia brand, following China's directive for all foreign car makers to form a separate brand with their local partners to help the country's fledgling industry gain technological know-how.
"We want to be a global car maker, presenting every single kind of product you can find in the Nissan brand - from the luxury, with Infiniti, and the entry level with affordable cars under Venucia," Nissan Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn told Reuters TV at the show. "We're going to be everywhere."
Dongfeng Nissan, the joint venture's passenger car arm, said it aims to add a new Venucia model every year, targeting annual sales of 300,000 vehicles by 2015, with five products and 250 exclusive dealers.
In another move that promises to nudge Nissan further ahead of Toyota and Honda Motor Co (>> Honda Motor), Japan's No.2 automaker said last week it would begin producing Infiniti vehicles in China from 2014, putting it on a more level playing field with dominant German brands that build locally and avoid import tariffs of 25 percent. Toyota and Honda executives have said they have no immediate plans to produce their Lexus and Acura premium vehicles in China.
"Nissan's management has been unsparing and speedy in its investments in emerging markets, particularly China," said Kenji Yoshida, a partner at consultancy PwC. "That's definitely helping them."
All the while, Toyota and Honda have seen their market share slip in the past four years as competition intensifies in the mid-sized sedan segment where their core Camry and Accord models had driven sales. Honda's sales in China fell for the first time in 2011, although part of that was due to a supply shortage resulting from Japan's earthquake and tsunami in March.
Toyota and Honda also missed the trend towards affordable compact cars as consumers sought better fuel economy. Gasoline prices in China have soared about 60 percent over the last three years, to more than 8 yuan ($1.27) per litre.
Both automakers are looking to fight back.
"We were a bit thin in the compact segment," Honda CEO Takanobu Ito conceded. "Our first priority is to add more compact models and increase our sales volumes," he told reporters in Beijing. Honda on Monday announced plans for a new factory that would boost its output capacity in China by roughly a third to 1.01 million cars a year by 2014.
Toyota, for its part, unveiled a design-oriented compact concept model, called the "Toyota Qin", aimed at attracting young buyers. It has said it aims to roughly double its Chinese sales to 1.6-1.8 million vehicles by 2015.
Nissan, meanwhile, is aiming to boost its annual output capacity in China by two-thirds to 2 million vehicles by the end of 2015, and its market share to 10 percent from 7.4 percent.
Like Honda, Toyota acknowledged that its recent growth in China has been wanting, especially considering its top-three standing in global sales.
"In the United States and Japan, we are very successful, but we are only number five (among foreign car makers) in China," said Dong Changzheng, a top executive at Toyota's Chinese subsidiary.
"At the same time, we're not targeting an expansion in sales volumes as much as a leadership position in vehicle technology," he told reporters on Tuesday.
Under a new local marketing campaign that started last month, Toyota has been promoting the advantages of hybrid technology, in which it has a big lead globally but which has failed to catch on in China due to its hefty price premium over conventional gasoline cars. At the auto show, Toyota also debuted a China-only hybrid concept car, called "Yundong Shuangqing", that will be sold from 2015 with a hybrid system developed primarily at its new Chinese R&D centre.
"Gasoline prices are rising so the real cost of hybrid cars for the customer should come down," Dong said, adding that localizing hybrid parts should also lower production costs. "We want to help spread hybrids over the next three years."
Toyota said it would also launch a plug-in hybrid car in China this year, moving the plan forward by one year.
Nissan's Ghosn argued, however, that conventional hybrids were at a disadvantage after the Chinese government last week set a target of putting 5 million plug-in hybrids and pure-electric vehicles on the road between now and 2020.
The government says it will provide generous subsidies for those cars as long as they use batteries procured locally. Under the policy, foreign battery makers will only be able to manufacture in a minority-held joint venture, raising concerns over technology transfer.
Nissan, which has made zero-emission leadership a major pillar of its global strategy, has committed to building electric cars in China by 2015, under the Venucia brand. Ghosn said Nissan and its French partner, Renault SA (>> RENAULT), were prepared to follow any guideline put forward by Beijing.
"I think Nissan's run will continue," said Credit Suisse auto analyst Kunihiko Shiohara, noting that success in China hinged not just on product-competitiveness but factors such as good relations with the government. "In that respect, Nissan seems much more committed and is in a better position."
($1 = 6.3088 Chinese yuan)
(Additional reporting by Max Duncan; Editing by Alex Richardson)
By Chang-Ran Kim