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Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Nissan becoming a trend-setter

NYTimes says Nissan shows Japanese automakers areno longer a copycat and Nissan is becoming a trend-setter. Excerpts:

Not long after Carlos Ghosn began running the Nissan Motor Co. in 1999, he installed Shiro Nakamura, from Isuzu, as its chief designer. Five years later, Ghosn is widely seen as a management wizard, having engineered a stunning turnaround in the company's fortunes, and Nakamura has established Nissan as a leader in automotive design. The praise for Nissan's new look has come from all corners: from journalists impressed by the bold concept cars at auto shows; from customers, who have embraced many of the distinctive cars and trucks in Nissan and Infiniti showrooms; and from designers and executives at competing companies, including Robert A. Lutz, vice chairman of General Motors, and Peter Schreyer, chief of design at Volkswagen. Under Nakamura, Nissan has risen in prominence, becoming the first Japanese automaker to gain respect for its pace-setting designs rather than simply for engineering or quality. Innovative design has also lifted the company's sales. Nissan's global sales have risen more than 20 percent in five years; Ghosn predicts 3.6 million annual sales by the end of next September, compared with 2.5 million in 1999. Gary Vasilash, editor in chief of Automotive Design and Production, a trade publication, said: "Although Carlos Ghosn is given the major credit for the remarkable turnaround of Nissan's business, Nakamura's transformation of the face of Nissan through innovative and aggressive designs is as much a part of the company's success as anything done on the business side." He said his success came from changing the system to allow ideas to remain undiluted by committee thinking. He consolidated several European studios into one, Nissan Design Europe in London. He took over direct supervision of Nissan Design America in the La Jolla district of San Diego. "We did not change the people," he said. "Only the strategy and system."
The key to Nakamura's ideas and his quiet statement of principles can be found in the Chappo concept car. Unveiled at the Geneva auto show in 2001, the Chappo was Nakamura's declaration of independence. Nakamura called the Chappo "a magical box" that emphasized space instead of speed. Its inspirations included the traditional Japanese teahouse, the tatami mat and lacquerware. The Chappo displayed Nakamura's determination to create cars that were proudly, unabashedly Japanese but would nonetheless have wide global appeal -- like the best Japanese electronics products. That, he reasoned, would create a "borderless identity" for Nissan.
"We emphasize Japanese DNA," Nakamura said. "That means principles, not specific shapes. It means, for instance, making clever use of small spaces." Turning national traits into global values has helped Nissan move beyond Japanese carmakers' history of producing generic emulations of German or American models. Nakamura planned his strategy globally but aimed specific models locally. Europe got the charming frog-eyed Micra subcompact. The United States got the big, rugged, bulldog-face Titan pickup.
The Cube, an offspring of the Chappo that Nissan is likely to bring to the United States. The Cube defies the American ideal of speed, Nakamura noted. "It is about the pleasure of moving slowly and enjoying the scenery," he said. "There is an interest in this kind of vehicle in Japan. I thought for a long time that such interest had to do with our traffic jams. But I looked into transportation history. Japan has no tradition of the carriage drawn by horses. Even the aristocracy always traveled in vehicles drawn by oxen," which didn't move so fast. The Cube may be the ultimate car for such slow-motion cruising. Inspired by, of all things, 1950s refrigerators, the Cube has been a success in Japan.

The Cube shows another side of Nakamura: he enjoys slyly flaunting the rules. In an industry dedicated to speed, he dares to contemplate a design for slowness, or even a playpen that stays parked. He likes to list words that inspire his vehicles. For the Cube, he has four such words: relaxing, compact, agile -- and naughty. Nissan is the rising Japanese star in the global automobile - nay global industrial world. Definitely an inspiring success story.
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