Nissan Enters Full-Size Pickup Fray

Detroit January 2, 2003; John Porretto writing for AP reported that Nissan Motor Co. could have introduced its first full-size pickup at any number of upcoming auto shows around the world.

In fact, there's one in its own backyard, the Tokyo Auto Salon, in mid-January.

But the rising Japanese automaker had its eye on another backyard, that of the traditional Big Three automakers, when it chose next week's North American International Auto Show for the debut.

Ford, Chevrolet, GMC and Dodge have long dominated the large pickup market, but Nissan officials say they plan to make a statement when they unveil their new truck in Detroit.

"One of our biggest challenges has been overcoming the perception that Japanese automakers can't build trucks as big as the domestics," said Larry Dominique, Nissan North America's chief product specialist.

"You're going to see that every characteristic of this vehicle is full-size," he said.

The 2003 NAIAS kicks off Sunday with three days of media previews. Nissan will take the wraps off the new truck Tuesday, one of several pickups and more than 60 vehicles set to debut here.

It was four years ago that Toyota Motor Co. caused a stir with the introduction of the full-size V8-powered Tundra, posing the first credible challenge to the automotive segment dominated by American brands.

When Toyota launched the Tundra, its advertising offered direct comparisons to the big trucks made by the Big Three -- an effort to break the allegiances of pickup buyers, who are among the most loyal to their particular brand.

The Tundra gave Toyota its fastest start for any brand when it hit showrooms in 1999. Japan's top automaker sold 100,445 of the trucks in 2000, and another 108,863 last year -- still well behind the top domestic brands but enough to cause the industry to take notice.

Ford Motor Co., maker of the world's best-selling F-Series lineup, also will make news at the show with its latest F-150, the '04 model, which Ford is counting on to play a vital role in its ongoing turnaround.

The world's No. 2 automaker sold more than 900,000 F-Series pickups last year.

Nick Scheele, Ford's president and chief operating officer, speaking to journalists in New York in early December, called the F-150 relaunch the company's most important event in 2003 -- when Ford also celebrates its 100th year in business.

"Getting it right is absolutely critical," Scheele said.

Light truck sales, which include full-size models, sport utility vehicles, vans and minivans, account for about half of the U.S. market, so it's no wonder why Asian and European automakers are aggressively pursuing a piece of the market pie.

Nissan, Toyota, Honda Motor Co. and Hyundai Motor Co. all are adding light-truck capacity in North America -- a fact that Merrill Lynch analyst John Casesa says will foster more market share gains for the foreign transplants in coming years.

In a recent research report, Casesa noted that General Motors Corp., Ford and DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group had collectively lost 1.8 share points in the United States this year heading into the final selling weeks.

"More importantly, new light-truck introductions from Japanese (manufacturers) ... will continue to pressure share in the Big Three's last stronghold of profitability," Casesa said.

Despite gains by the foreigners, Ford's F-Series remains No. 1 in the full-size pickup classification.

Through November, the F-Series had total U.S. retail sales of 740,817 -- the highest number for any car or truck sold domestically, according to Autodata Corp. (Ford doesn't provide individual sales figures for the F-150, F-250 and F-350.)

The Chevy Silverado was second among all vehicles with 575,886 units sold in the first 11 months of 2002. The Dodge Ram was No. 5 at 362,122, according to Autodata.

December and total-year sales figures are released Friday.

Demand has grown so steadily for Dodge Ram and Dakota pickups that Chrysler announced in October it will add a third production shift at its Warren Truck Assembly Plant near Detroit. The investment will boost production by 21 percent.

"Trucks consistently have been one of the best profit-makers within the U.S. marketplace," said John Hoffecker, a vice president at the management consulting firm A.T. Kearney.

"It's one of the reasons a lot of foreign manufacturers are putting their plants here -- there's not a big market outside the U.S.," Hoffecker said. "When you look at trucks as a percentage of profit, this is a great place to be."

Dominique said Nissan began pondering a full-size pickup three years ago, about the same time the automaker brought in Carlos Ghosn from Renault to rescue it from the brink of bankruptcy.

Dominique said when he and others considered Nissan's lineup without a big-truck offering, "there seemed to be a gaping hole."

In November 2000, Nissan announced it would spend $930 million for a new manufacturing plant in Canton, Miss. -- and a full-size pickup was in the mix of products.

"Mr. Ghosn understood we had to spend a considerable amount of money and engineering resources to do this," Dominique said. "He approached the approval of this (truck) program as a kind of high-risk, high-return type endeavor."

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