July 29--It's not a pretty sight when the young stud expands into middle age. When the Pathfinder, an early product of Nissan's La Jolla, Calif., studio, debuted in 1986, it was a specimen of sculpted masculinity. The latest version? A three-row crossover better suited to the Brady Bunch's driveway.
The comparison is representative of Nissan as a whole, a once-hot company that currently sports the impression of being second-tier, trying to find its place behind better defined competitors. But designers in California have been working hard to redefine Nissan through dynamic styling that speaks to drivers.
"Design is communicating emotion from designer to customer," said Shiro Nakamura, senior vice president and chief creative officer, Nissan Motor Co. "Also important are practicality, performance and functionality. You have to set a clear goal. What is your brand going to be?"
Datsun was Driven
Datsun, precursor to Nissan, famously sold vehicles with the tagline, "We Are Driven!" Its cars had a reputation for being durable and efficient, but also fun to drive. The stylish and affordable 240Z sports car that debuted for 1970 set the tone for an automaker on the move. Datsun transitioned to Nissan in 1986.
Nissan had bursts of styling mojo over the years, mostly out of the California studios. Think about the buff 1986 Hardbody Pickup, muscular Pathfinder and subcompact Pulsar NX with a re-configurable roof. In 1990, an all-new Maxima, dubbed the "4-Door Sports Car," was born. Three years later, Altima cribbed Infiniti's elegant J30. All were hits.
While most of the lineup became poster children for Japanese blandness during the '90s, creativity seeped out. Concepts for a modern interpretation of the classic Z sports car and four-door pickup debuted at the 1998 Detroit auto show. In 1999, Xterra returned to Pathfinder roots with tough style and tougher underpinnings.
Finally, designers gave attention to mainstream models. The 2002 Altima combined smooth forms with performance car acceleration. A year later, the all-new Maxima and Murano crossover looked like concept cars for the street. The hideous Murano CrossCabriolet, yes, a convertible crossover, should have stayed home.
In the past decade, the Nissan brand has taken hold in the U.S. Market share has increased from 5.3 percent in 2005 to 7.1 percent in 2010 and 8.6 percent as of June 2015, just 0.2 percent behind Honda (8.8 percent) and more than double any other Asian make except Toyota (14.5 percent), according to data from The Wall Street Journal. Altima is the second-best-selling midsize car in America, behind Toyota's Camry, according to Automotive News. The spacious subcompact Versa starts at just $11,990, while the Leaf plug-in outsells Chevy's Volt by almost 2-1. A wide offering of vehicles allows Nissan to fill virtually every need.
"Right now, what's interesting is they have five SUVs," said Jessica Caldwell, director of industry analysis, Edmunds.com. "There's the new Rogue, one of their best-selling vehicles. They're well positioned in timing the crossover trend."
A broad lineup gives Nissan options but also affects what buyers think of the brand.
"They have everything from small cars to performance models to midsize sedans and trucks. It gets confusing. As gas prices fluctuate, the large-model lineup allows them to swing easily," Caldwell said. "But, having a big lineup is good and negative. You can't tell what they're about."
Caldwell says Nissan derives significant sales from rental fleets, while Honda has zero fleet sales, making Nissan seem second-tier. During April's New York Auto Show, Nissan North American Chairman Jose Munoz pushed back, noting Nissan's fleet sales are down 17 percent year-over-year.
"They've had ups and downs," Caldwell said. "In the '90s, they were more aspirational. Maxima and Sentra were really cool cars, but they're now more of heritage models. They're not what people aspire to own."
The designers in La Jolla are working to change that.
Nissan is banking on a new California-developed design theme, dubbed "V-Motion," to redefine the brand. We first caught a glimpse at the 2013 North American International Auto Show in Detroit with the Resonance concept, a preview of the 2015 Murano. It was followed by the Sport Sedan Concept, a dead ringer for the 2016 Maxima that began sales June 2.
"It is basically the top of lineup of the Nissan brand," Nakamura said. "It's a halo product, cascading to the whole Nissan design. It has a very emotional front, flowing sides and floating roof that you will see in others ... more dramatic, communicating what we want to deliver."
Maxima and Murano mark a return to 2003 when the duo set the tone for Nissan with curvy styling, floating dash pods, and the attitude of a Z. The vehicles were exciting and drew waves of drivers. Is this new focus on design working?
"Yeah, the new cars look good," Caldwell said. "Murano looks great. Maxima is a huge car for them. It's not a large segment, but it looks good. In terms of design, Nissan's cars look pretty attractive."
These cars join an odd mix of designs. The new Rogue crossover is chiseled but doesn't fully adopt V-Motion. Juke looks like a ninja beetle, the Versa subcompact embraces European style, the Quest minivan cribs Infiniti, and the $101,000 GT-R supercar just looks angry. The 370Z bridges past and future. None is ugly, but neither are they defining; they could have come from entirely different automakers.
Then, there's the 2016 Titan pickup. It's built to haul and packed with an optional Cummins diesel engine but has been criticized for its uncanny resemblance to Ford's F-150. A truck this well-engineered deserves distinct styling.
Is Nissan going to be a trendsetter or perhaps return to the Datsun days and play the sporty card? Maxima and Murano are proof Nissan can do both. But it must quit discounting cars to rental fleets, and Nakamura must be brutal about consistency in global design.
"Nissan is trying to be a top-tier Japanese brand," Caldwell said. "They need to find out what their niche is. Are they going down the sporty road? Can Americans see parallels to themselves? Why buy a Nissan over Accord or Camry?"
Nissan opened its La Jolla studio in 1979 to give its cars and trucks a cool California vibe unmatched by rivals. It worked, setting Nissan ahead for a generation. V-Motion may just do it again, but let's hope the sexy styling ages more gracefully than the Pathfinder.
Casey Williams is an automotive freelance writer.
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