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A Sneak Peak: Nissan Hopes to Redefine Niches

In today's age of look-alike cars, many automakers struggle to define themselves and give shoppers a reason to choose their products.

Chief among them is Nissan, a distant third among Japanese automakers and a company still struggling to grow its market share in America.

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The question for Nissan executives is: Why should someone buy an Altima or Maxima sedan instead of a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord?

The answer, they say, is a new wave of distinctive products that buyers say they want now - more trucks, more versatility, more passion. And not more price.

To that end, Nissan has some new ideas about what Americans will be driving after the turn of the century.

And in an act unprecedented by a foreign carmaker, it offered press and pundits a glimpse of future models as long as four years in advance. The company hopes to wow naysayers with promise of a turnaround.

The three most promising new products are a new small sport utility vehicle to be introduced next year, a new sports car, and a new type of truck that will likely be produced in some form early next century.

Small SUV

The linchpin in this coming lineup is Nissan's new entry-level $20,000 sport utility vehicle.

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Nissan wants it to go head to head with the popular and car like Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, but the company aims to be anything but car like.

"As automakers all move toward more carlike and more luxurious SUVs, we see a big hole opening up right in the middle of the [sport utility vehicle] market," says Jerry Hirschberg, president of Nissan's West Coast design studio, which designed the new truck.

Nissan's "New SUV" will be "deliberately rough hewn" with "in-your-face" styling.

Most mid-size SUVs - such as the Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee - have grown larger and more expensive with each revision. This new off-roader aims to roll over that trend.

It is compact, yet retains plenty of back-seat room and slightly less cargo space than Nissan's current Pathfinder.

The rest of the cargo space sits atop the roof in a standard "safari" rack - essentially a big roof rack with a suspended storage bin.

Behind the safari rack, the roof steps up about 6 inches so rear passengers have plenty of headroom.

But while the still unnamed SUV will be smaller than today's mid-size models, it has much more space than the "mini" Toyota RAV4 or Suzuki versions. And unlike, the car-based RAV4 and CR-V, the new Nissan is designed to go off-road, with a sturdy, part-time four-wheel-drive system.

Nissan officials expect the current, larger Pathfinder to continue as an upscale alternative.

The new SUV will appear as a 2000 model about 12 months from now.

Sport utility truck

Looking farther in the future, Nissan hopes to provide even more versatility by crossing the new SUV with a small pickup truck.

Research at Mr. Hirschberg's Nissan Design International (NDI) in La Jolla, Calif., found that while people buy sport utility vehicles to bridge the gap between cars and trucks, they are loath to load the cargo area with traditional truck cargo - yard mulch, topsoil, gravel, and trash for the dump.

At the same time, researchers found that those who own trucks for such tasks rarely use more than one-third of the truck bed for most trips.

Hence the sport-utility truck (SUT), with four-wheel drive, lots of amenities, room for five passengers, and a short, open, three-foot pickup bed.

Hirschberg calls these the "clean zone" and the "dirty zone" - any grubby cargo stays out of the interior and away from carpet and upholstery.

For those rare events when project-minded homeowners buy a load of lumber, a door on the back of the passenger compartment swings up, connecting it to the truck bed. The back seats fold down, leaving a flat, eight-foot space that starts behind the front seats.

The SUT would come, initially, with four-wheel drive and a V-6 engine.

The SUT is still just a concept, not yet approved for production, and a full-size bright yellow model on display for journalists was made of clay. Design and manufacturing details would take years to work out, by 2002 or 2003 at the earliest.

But enthusiastic dealers say they could sell it now, bolstering the prospects for production approval.

In the meantime, Nissan plans a four-door version of its small Frontier pickup, with an abbreviated back seat, regular forward-opening rear doors, and a standard six-foot cargo bed. The back seat will accommodate kids, even in a rear-facing baby seat, but it's not for adults. The four-door Frontier should hit the showrooms next summer for about $2,000 more than its King Cab pickup.

Sports car rebirth

Looking back to design the future has become a popular theme in automotive design. And Nissan designers figure they have the perfect legend to build on.

When the company introduced the Datsun 240Z sportscar in 1970, it became a cultural touchstone.

The "Z" as it came to be known lasted 26 years and sold millions. By the early '90s, some observers considered the 300ZX the best sports car ever built. But it had a price tag to match: more than $40,000. Sales were slow, and Nissan canceled the model.

But that meant Nissan lost the car that built its image, and marketing, sales, and profits foundered.

Now Nissan hopes to recapture those glory days with a new Z-car, modeled more on the original 240Z than the outgoing 300ZX.

The clay in the New York display model was "still warm," Hirschberg says. Its lines were lifted directly from the original, and it was just one of several designs being considered for a new Z. The price: a nostalgic $20,000 to $25,000.

Dealers say they want it yesterday.

New sedans

Nissan displayed other new products in New York, but they seemed less successful.

NDI is studying whether traditional sedans can remain viable as baby boomers, accustomed to versatile minivans and SUVs, downsize their family vehicles.

Its new concept sedan (NCS) borrows heavily from station wagon design, with a cargo area behind the rear seats and a higher rear roof line.

But it has an unusual rear window treatment, with a skylight at the rear and a steeply raked rear window, to provide a more formal look than traditional station wagons. The NCS is strictly a concept.

In the meantime, Nissan plans to bolster the image of its sedans by styling more of them in the US to cater to American tastes, and by giving its small, medium, and large sedans common styling themes with strong character.

For 2000, the entry-level Sentra will become sleeker and more luxurious, what Hirschberg calls a "destination product" rather than a steppingstone designed to move consumers up to other models. The midsize Altima shows little change, and the large Maxima will regain a sportier flair.

Nissan's successful Quest minivan also gets a face lift and a few new innovations - such as a movable cargo shelf that allows grocery bags to be stacked.

When Daimler-Benz bought Chrysler, analysts said it heralded a new wave of mergers in the auto industry, one that could leave Nissan, already spinning its wheels, in an even deeper rut. Some doubted Nissan's staying power, because of it high debt and weak products.

Now analysts see hope for Nissan - if only because it's working on its problems. If merger mania holds off a few more years, Nissan's product lineup for the next century could take the automotive world by storm.

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