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Alliance brands firm on own designs, for now

Follow the leader: The newly devised “leader-follower” vehicle strategy will see Nissan responsible for all aspects of the next X-Trail, Outlander and Koleos, including their upper bodies.

Mitsubishi, Nissan, Renault insist too early yet to label next utes, SUVs as clones

28 May 2020

THE Australian distributors of Nissan, Mitsubishi and Renault argue it is too early to assume that crucial forthcoming models such as next-generation pick-up trucks and SUVs will be reduced to a badge engineering exercise under a sweeping overhaul of the global alliance announced this week.


The three auto-makers have developed a so-called “leader-follower” vehicle strategy as part of a new co-operation business model that will hand responsibility for product development and regional priorities to a single brand and push the current “standardisation strategy” from platform sharing to upper bodies in an effort to slash model investment costs by up to 40 per cent.


This has given rise to speculation that the next-generation Mitsubishi Triton, Nissan Navara and expected Renault Alaskan utes will be essentially clones of one another and share strikingly similar designs with only minimal differentiation between them.


The same applies to other vital models for Australia, such as the next-generation Mitsubishi Outlander, Nissan X-Trail and Renault Koleos mid-size SUVs that will spring from a new Nissan-developed C-SUV platform due “post-2025”.


However, Australian representatives of the alliance brands have told GoAuto there is still no specific guidance on whether their all-important future models will be badge-engineered versions of the designated leader brand’s vehicle, despite Mitsubishi showing the way with its looming reborn Express van which is a rebadged version of the Renault Trafic.


Mitsubishi Motors Australia Limited (MMAL) head of corporate communications and government relations Karl Gehling said the Express program was a fleet-oriented exercise and that the latest restructure of the alliance had not clarified the issue of differentiation between member brands’ respective core model range, which in each case relies heavily on light commercials and SUVs.


He also said the announcement this week that Mitsubishi Motors would be the leading brand in the alliance for the ASEAN and Oceania region would also not bring any change to the current situation in Australia, which sees the distributors run largely as separate entities but with consolidated financial services and logistical operations for parts and accessories.


“The announcement was around the regional strategy. There is no impact to the independence of the individual brands in specific markets, so it doesn’t effectively change anything in Australia,” Mr Gehling said.


“I think it’s a bit of a reach to (talk about) the strategy around the regions and how they are developing the leader-follower plan for each region, how that’s connected to the individual markets, at this stage there isn’t that detail yet.


“Each brand still operates independently. It’s truly around the strategy for ASEAN and Oceania and how the company develops its product plans for those regions and use the expertise of each brand in each region.”


Mr Gehling said it was “too early to say what the strategy will be” regarding differentiation between each brand’s volume-selling SUVs – “we haven’t got any clarity on it” – and emphasised that “there was no position on the ladder-frame ute for any of the markets or brands”.


Indeed, Nissan’s recently appointed global chief operating officer Ashwani Gupta – who during the past two years has also served as Mitsubishi’s COO and the entire alliance’s LCV chief – said at the restructuring announcement this week that Nissan and Mitsubishi were considered joint leaders for the next-generation mid-size pick-up program.


This is a move away from his previous position that Mitsubishi was leading the program’s development and that the all-new Triton due in the next few years would form the basis of the next Navara and Alaskan. 


“Mitsubishi and Nissan, both are the leaders in the pick-up, and the frame vehicle is jointly now studied between Mitsubishi and Nissan,” Mr Gupta said.


“What we have to see is: number one, what is the product access; number two, what is the technology access; number three, what is the manufacturing access; and number four, what is the market access? 


“We need to find the best marriage for the three partner companies to improve the competitiveness of their existing business and without duplication of any kind of activity.”


Renault Australia’s corporate and product communications manager Andrew Ellis told GoAuto that the company valued the strength inherent in the alliance and the advantages it brought to its model range, with there being no indication at this stage that distinctive elements of the French brand’s styling and character would disappear under the latest cost-cutting measures. 


“We’ve seen it already with the Trafic and Express and I think it’s just a logical extension of that,” he said. “We’re still waiting to see a lot of detail – it was a very broad-brush stroke – but we are optimistic about where this will lead us.


“Underneath Koleos (for example), there is no doubt that there are a lot of Nissan parts, but it’s distinctly Renault inside – there’s no doubt that I’m driving a Renault – and I think that’s what they are now trying to make clear, that yes there will be commonality but each brand will have its own individual look and feel that they can create.


“We’ve seen that working with us already, and we look forward to where that’s going to take us.”


Nissan Australia director of corporate communications Karla Leach also said the company has “no guidance on these details yet” – be it the sharing of vehicle designs or potentially playing a subordinate role to MMAL in operational terms – and therefore “cannot comment further at this time”.


Under the leader-follower scheme, the three car-makers will co-operate to: push the alliance’s “standardisation strategy” further, extending from platforms to upper bodies; focus on one “mother vehicle” (leader car) in each product segment, with sister vehicles engineered by the leading company; ensure that leader and follower vehicles for each brand are produced using “the most competitive set-up”, including grouping production where appropriate; and continue to build on product sharing in light commercial vehicles, where the leader-follower model is already applied.


Chairman of both the Alliance Operating Board and Renault Jean-Dominique Senard said the restructure will give the triumvirate “a strong edge in the ever-changing global automotive landscape”.


“Now is the time to rebuild,” he said. “For our three companies, the alliance is the keystone to our resilience and to our competitiveness.


“The mobility landscape is changing fast as competition in the automotive market increases. Today we adjust our model accordingly. The alliance’s new (business) model focuses on efficiency and competitiveness, rather than on volumes.”


As well as driving the C-SUV class, Nissan will handle C/D passenger cars, kei cars in Japan and an all-new electric vehicle. Renault will handle next-generation B-SUVs, A/B passenger cars and electric powertrains for each of these segments. 


Mitsubishi will take charge of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles for the C/D class.


Nissan will control autonomous driving technology and connected-car tech for China, leaving Renault with responsibility for Android-based connectivity and the core system of the electric-electronic architecture. 


As Mitsubishi takes the lead role in ASEAN and Oceania, Nissan will be the “reference” for China, North America and Japan, and Renault’s core focus will be Europe, Russia, South America and North Africa. 


“With each company becoming a reference company in respective regions, the opportunities for sharing will increase to maximise fixed cost sharing, as well as leveraging each company’s assets,” the alliance said in a statement.


“The companies’ product portfolio updates will follow the leader-follower scheme, and leader and follower vehicles will be produced using the most competitive set-up.”


Mr Senard ruled out a merger between Nissan and Renault, saying efficiencies achieved under the alliance would be enough, but said the door was still open for other car-makers to establish or deepen relations. 


These include Daimler, which he said continues as a positive relationship, despite the early abandonment of the Navara-based X-Class ute. 

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