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Nissan Oz plots medium sedan, SUV attack

Mid-sizer: The replacement for the current US Nissan Altima sedan (pictured) is a strong chance to be introduced here in 2013.

All-new mid-size sedan and SUV set for Oz as Nissan Australia aligns itself with US

Nissan logo9 Aug 2011

By TERRY MARTIN

NISSAN Australia is planning a fresh, big-volume assault on the medium-sized passenger car and SUV segments as its Japanese parent prepares to release a fully redesigned Altima sedan and coupe and a new Pathfinder in the US next year.

Details of the new models are still secret, with global debuts in concept or near-production form on the cards for the Los Angeles auto show in November or in Detroit seven weeks later, ahead of a likely Australian introduction in 2013.

GoAuto understands Nissan’s upcoming fourth-generation Pathfinder is set to ditch the current seven-year-old model’s steel ladder-frame chassis and return to monocoque underpinnings that will bring far superior on-road dynamics at the expense of some off-road ability.

The fourth-generation Altima, meanwhile, which is now in its sixth year, is also in line for a radical redesign and, with it, global responsibilities, returning the Primera to Europe and providing Australia with the means to axe the larger, low-volume Maxima and make its presence felt in the increasingly important medium-car segment dominated by the Australian-manufactured Toyota Camry.

No less significantly, Altima also looks set to become Nissan’s first hybrid car in Australia – representing a direct threat to Toyota’s Altona-built Camry hybrid, which enters a new generation early next year after the mainstream model hits the market in November.

In an interview with GoAuto last week, Nissan Australia managing director and CEO Dan Thompson revealed the company is working with the US to secure both a mid-size (D-segment) passenger car and SUV designed in North America for international consumption, including right-hand-drive markets.

12 center imageLeft: Nissan Altima coupe. Below: Nissan Pathfinder.

He said that might not mean Australian vehicles will be built in the US, but that North America had taken a lead role in developing D-segment cars under the direction of Nissan Motor Co chief executive Carlos Ghosn, who is cutting back on the number of regional models in favour of global vehicles.

“The driving force for us looking in the US is the trends here in this market,” Mr Thompson said.

“We all know where large cars are going (ie: downward), so we believe that a medium-sized D-segment car is more than enough and that’s the future, in our opinion, for Australia. We also think with Pathfinder … a medium SUV moving away from frame-based.

“It just so happens that with those two trends, we believe the product already exists in the US around that philosophy and they’re also going in that same direction.

“And let’s be honest, when it comes to SUVs, Europe’s not interested, Japan’s never been interested, so we have to align ourselves with the US more effectively and pull ourselves away from alignment with ... other markets where frame-based will go on for a long, long time.” Mr Thompson said Nissan recognised that it had “too many different (D-segment) cars” and that Australia’s alignment with the US would hand it volume-selling replacements for both Maxima, which straddles the medium and large segments and has found 150 buyers a month this year, and Pathfinder, sales of which have fallen to around 190 a month – down from 350 a month five years ago and now akin to the niche Murano, despite a major realignment last year.

The Murano is based on the same platform as Maxima and is pitched as a premium high-riding wagon version of the large car.

“We believe firmly that here, the future is around medium, not large cars,” said Mr Thompson. “So Maxima straddles and honestly doesn’t serve the purpose that we need, or doesn’t fill its role today when we only sell a few hundred a month. It needs to be significantly more volume, so we’re looking at other strategies for Maxima replacement and also Pathfinder replacement.

“The challenge to our guys is we’re not interested in bringing a whole slew of non-core models that sell a few hundred units a month unless they’re Zeds and GT-Rs and Muranos and the like. So if we want to have investment in Maxima, investment in Pathfinder, 200 a month, boys, isn’t good enough.

“It’s just that philosophy – not willing to just roll over and just keep doing what we’ve always been doing for the last 10 years and accept that 200 (sales a month) is good, because it’s not.” Mr Thompson said that when they arrive here, the new medium-sized models will not become part of Nissan’s group of core models – X-Trail, Navara, Micra and the ‘Pulsar’ Tiida replacement – that are expected to be top-three sellers with a minimum 10 per cent share of their segments.

But he said their sales volume had to be “somewhere in between to make it worthwhile”.

Precious few details surround the new-generation Altima and Pathfinder, but the Altima is a crucial vehicle – Nissan’s biggest-selling vehicle bar none in the US by a large margin (figures released last week show it found 21,340 homes last month, while it topped 32,000 units in March to be America’s biggest-selling sedan for the first time) – and one that Mr Thompson rates highly.

As well as being available in both sedan and coupe body styles, the Altima is available with a 130kW 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine and a 201kW 3.5-litre V6 petrol – both driving the front wheels through a CVT transmission – and in 2007 became Nissan’s first hybrid vehicle, pairing the 2.5 ‘QR25’ inline-four with a Toyota-sourced hybrid drive system.

Significantly, Mr Thompson last week committed to offering an alternative powertrain in “almost every segment outside of light” in Australia – meaning diesel, hybrid or pure electric – in the period following its current GT2012 strategy, which ends on March 31, 2013.

That is point at which Nissan Australia has vowed to be Australia’s number-one fully imported brand with a market share of at least 10 per cent (up from 6.8 per cent now).

“When we talk about post-GT2012, for us hybrid will be a key alternative powertrain in some of the medium and larger size segments, there’s no doubt,” he said, adding that diesel was also a prime consideration in larger segments, including medium and large SUVs.

The medium-car segment currently accounts for 7.3 per cent of all new-vehicle sales in Australia – just 0.3 per cent behind large cars – and Nissan will enter the fray against a raft of key rivals.

Other than this year’s replacement for Toyota’s dominant Camry, Nissan will take on Ford’s now-popular Mondeo and the Mazda6 range, which so far this year holds third place in the mainstream mid-size car segment but should be thoroughly modernised with advanced SkyActiv technology by the time the Altima arrives here.

Also joining mid-size stalwarts like Subaru’s Liberty, Honda’s Accord Euro and Volkswagen’s new Passat will be the all-new Holden Malibu (due next year) and this year’s new Peugeot 508, VW Jetta and Hyundai i40 wagon, which will join an increasingly popular i45 sedan range that, along with the Kia Optima, could eventually offer a hybrid variant here.

It remains to be seen how much off-road ability Nissan retains with its redesigned Pathfinder, but it too should provide a serious threat for an Australian-manufactured model – namely, the Ford Territory, and potentially the Toyota Kluger should the Japanese giant approve production of a third model line at Altona.

The current Pathfinder is based on Nissan’s ‘F-Alpha’ platform that underpins light trucks and SUVs, including the big-selling Navara utility.

Australian-spec models are built in Spain and offer a 140kW/450Nm 2.5-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel or a 3.0-litre V6 oil-burner good for 170kW and 550Nm.

In the diesel-wary US, the Pathfinder has a 231kW 5.6-litre petrol V8 in its arsenal, with a 198kW 4.0-litre petrol V6 – the engine that was dropped from the Australian range last year – serving as the lower-output option. Both 4x4 and 4x2 drivelines are also available, whereas the Australian range sticks with the ‘All Mode’ part-time 4WD system.

Interestingly, Mr Thompson first identified the next-generation Pathfinder as presenting a significant opportunity for Australia in February 2009, when he told GoAuto: “The next generation will be a significant product improvement and much better from a volume perspective.

“It will definitely be much more stylish than current generation Pathfinder, but not along the lines of Murano. It won’t be what we consider a premium crossover that Murano is – it will be a legitimate medium-sized family wagon or SUV.”

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