Nissan eyes sedan market growth

Industry

LOS ANGELES — Nissan’s hopes of shedding its bargain-brand reputation and regaining market share hinge on a raft of product reboots, Nissan executives said on the sidelines of the Los Angeles Auto Show.

The product revival started with the unveiling of the redesigned 2020 Sentra, and it will encompass 10 new and freshened vehicles by the end of 2020, including an electric crossover.

“New products are going to be critical” to turn the business around, David Kershaw, Nissan division vice president of sales and regional operations, told Automotive News.

By developing more “aspirational products,” Nissan hopes to attract more creditworthy customers and reduce the need for discounting, which has harmed the brand’s image and wreaked havoc on dealer margins.

Nissan division’s U.S. sales through October tumbled 6 percent, and the automaker’s 7.5 percent share of the U.S. market through three quarters trailed rivals Toyota (12.3 percent) and Honda (8.6 percent), according to the Automotive News Data Center. Meanwhile, about 30 percent of Nissan’s U.S. dealerships are losing money, with an additional 10 percent merely breaking even, a person familiar with the data said this summer.

The latest model reboot was revealed last week. The Sentra compact sedan amps up in power and design, hoping to capture more of the evaporating market for sedans. Riding on a new platform, the eighth-generation Sentra is powered by a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine that delivers 149 hp, up 19 percent from the current generation’s 1.8-liter engine.

The revamp across the portfolio, including redesigns of crossovers and pickups, aims to improve the brand’s appeal to consumers.

“Going from somewhat of the oldest lineup in the industry, at least of the Asian brands, this will be an opportunity for us to have some fresh things that are out there,” Kershaw said. “We are going to really talk about the attributes of our product and what’s important to the customer — technology and safety obviously being key drivers of that.”

The Sentra, launched in 1982, was Nissan’s second-best-selling vehicle in the U.S. last year, accounting for 213,046 deliveries.

But the Sentra is playing in a shrinking market as Americans migrate to roomier crossovers. Mass-market small cars — mini, subcompact and compact — represented 12.4 percent of the light-vehicle market last year, down from 18.2 percent in 2014.

Even so, Nissan executives insist rumors of the death of the sedan segment are greatly exaggerated. “There is strength in the sedan market,” Kershaw said. “We think there’s opportunity in that segment.”

The sedan market reported sales of 5.3 million vehicles last year, according to the Data Center.

To appeal to the tech-forward youth market, Nissan loaded the Sentra with safety and connectivity bells and whistles once reserved for premium sedans.

“There’s opportunity for us to grow retail volume and really use this car as another catalyst for the technology changes that we’ve made in a compact car that I don’t think you’re going to find in a lot of the competitors,” Kershaw said.

The Sentra’s dashboard is anchored by a 4.2-inch digital driver display and a standard 7-inch touch screen. On higher trims, there is an optional 7-inch digital driver display paired to a floating 8-inch multitouch center display.

The new Sentra comes standard with Nissan’s suite of safety technologies and driver-assist systems, including automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, rear automatic braking and lane-departure warning.

The 2020 Sentra sits lower and is wider than its predecessor, giving it a lower center of gravity and the muscular and sporty profile of bigger siblings Maxima and GT-R. The next-generation Sentra has a drag coefficient of 0.27 vs. 0.29 for the current model. The front is dominated by a sculpted hood, Nissan’s signature V-motion grille and boomerang-shaped LED headlamps. The rear has a lower roofline and wider shoulders. The interior features contrast stitching on the seats, brushed aluminum and carbon-fiber accents.

“When we developed the interior, we actually targeted the near-luxury competitors,” said Rob Warren, director and chief marketing manager at Nissan. “We said, “Let’s go after Audi … and Infiniti.’ ”

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