History’s best cars are often mistakes, either built out of passion or desperation, though rarely are the best cars the most profitable. Fortune favors the bold, but in carmaking, fortunes rarely do. Nissan has quietly built one of the better lineups in the industry, but they haven’t yet built an identity.
I’ve had two Nissans in the last few weeks to drive around and it’s hard to find serious faults in either of them. The Nissan Murano I had is an attractive, well-packaged vehicle that manages to be a good value with a distinct design in an increasingly crowded space.
The Nissan Sentra SR I drove this weekend (no, running Jalopnik is not all Lambos all the time), while not the most exciting car in its class, is so much better than the outgoing car that I’m not sure why they’re still calling it a Sentra. Imagine if Spider-Man put on the full suit but still asked people to call him Peter Parker. It’s that big of a difference.
Nissan has also been rather insightful when it comes to vehicle choices, offering a subcompact CUV before anyone else with the Juke, and seeing an opening in the high end sports car space with the GT-R. The combination of Rogue and Murano puts them right where the market is, and both redesigns were well-timed and well conceived.
Sure, there are still some weird offerings from their previous attempts at an identity. The Nissan Leaf is hardly the success that was envisioned, the Cube was a misstep and a misfit in the U.S. market, and the Quest is an interesting vehicle but hardly what the people want. But those are on the edges.
Their core products are all good and, with a redesigned Altima coming soon, I imagine everything will be properly in line for them to continue their strong market growth. They’re also nicely profitable, despite Nissan-Renaults problems in markets outside the U.S. and China.
Part of this has to do with the still how-low-can-you-go yen, but Nissan was smart to take some of their potential profits and roll that into incentives that are high (about $2,900 per vehicle in 2014 according to this report, compared to around $2,000 per car for Toyota and Honda) but not fatal.
So what’s wrong? They’re making good products and have a decent market strategy. The new Nissan Titan will try to find a place in the market with diesel V8 offerings and a new GT-R will be here... eventually. I’m curious to see what the new Maxima can offer, but I’ve heard good things.
To get at my concern please answer me this question: What is a Nissan?
Building good cars isn’t easy, and Nissan has done that. Creating a cohesive design language that makes all your cars instantly recognizable is probably even harder, but I think Nissan is moving in that direction. The last thing you need to do to be a truly successful automaker is to have an identity that’s easy for anyone to understand and articulate.
Toyota and Honda were the only automakers to stick to a game plan and, despite bad luck and bad decisions, they always sell their cars. Could Nissan get away with a bad Sentra in the way Honda got away with a mediocre Civic? I don’t think so.
Subaru is the other Japanese automaker to finally have an identity, and despite selling fewer than half as many cars as Nissan, has established what it means to be a Subaru. Mazda’s done that pretty well, too; by making cars that are almost universally fun to drive, they live up to their own marketing as the fun car brand.
Is Nissan going to be a performance brand? The four-dour-sports-car rhetoric and the GT-R hint at that, but a lot of CVTs and cars tuned more towards efficiency have me thinking not. On the other hand, despite their one EV, the cars aren’t all fuel-sippers and their halo car is still the GT-R.
I love what Nissan is doing in motorsports, but if that’s what the brand is going to be they also need to build an affordable performance car and that’s where Nissan being too smart to be bold (see the likely cancellation of the iDX) worries me. I want to see the same spirit that says “Let’s build a 1,000 HP front-wheel-drive, front-engined prototype” applied to something normal people can actually buy.
I want to see the forward-thinking and brave design choices for the new Maxima and Murano applied to how the cars drive. I want Nissan to build a car as good as the WRX or the Miata for the same price.
Would that be smart? Not in the short-term. But a reckoning is coming. Technology is going to sweep in and change what we think it means to drive and own a car, and the brands that will succeed in that world won’t be the ones who build a good product at a good price with a good market strategy.
The brands that are going to survive are going to be the ones we can explain and, as of yet, I can’t fully explain Nissan.
Business Time is Jalopnik head honcho Matt Hardigree’s regular column about the business of building and selling cars. He can be reached at at email@example.com.