Travel | ON THE ROAD

Nissan stages own 'Olympics' to get ahead in hard times

Smaller models such as the March, Moco and Cube hog the limelight at Lisbon megaevent as attention turns from size to fuel efficiency

Imagine you are a marketing mogul at one of Japan’s big carmakers. Your job is to get the world’s motoring press driving your cars, generate international exposure and spread the word about your company’s products. And right now car sales are plummeting in many countries as rising oil prices hit consumers in the pocket. What would you do?

The standard approach in Japan is to gather about 10 of your latest cars at a hotel in the countryside near Tokyo, invite a couple of dozen journalists to test drive the vehicles, and then hope against hope that they write something positive about your products.

Nissan, however, is thinking outside the box. The company may lag behind America’s Big Three (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler) and Toyota, who sold 9.3 million vehicles worldwide last year compared with Nissan’s 3.7 million, but bold thinking about car design, and risk-taking, pulled the company back from the brink of bankruptcy after Carlos Ghosn took the helm in 1999.

That kind of breadth of imagination was on show at the Nissan 360 event held in Portugal last month when, in what could easily be called the Olympics of test-drive sessions, Nissan invited 620 motoring writers from 59 countries to gather in the southern European nation to drive the company’s full lineup of vehicles. That’s right, the whole global lineup: more than 60 different cars and trucks — many of them sold only in Japan. From Japan’s cute Cube and extensive minivan range to the GT-R supercar, from America’s mighty Titan truck to the luxury Infiniti range, from Europe’s diesel powered X-Trail to the off-road Pathfinder, this was the mother of all test-drive sessions. Nissan even brought a slew of commercial trucks and a Crew model taxi complete with automatic rear door, which Western journalists found highly amusing. (More than one was spotted driving up behind a rival writer and “accidentally” opening the door.)

Setting up a base of operations near a large hotel in Lisbon and another at Estoril racetrack, once Portugal’s Formula One venue, cost Nissan a figure approaching $10 million, according to one source.

That might sound expensive, but Nissan got its money’s worth. As a prerequisite to joining the event, all writers had to verbally agree that they would write about the drive session in some way in their regular outlets. A page of advertising in many of the world’s biggest selling car magazines costs upward of $10,000, and, given the scope of the machines available, and the exotic locations, most publications allocated at least four pages.

Portugal is also rich in imagery fitting Nissan’s adventure. Only marginally bigger than Hokkaido, from the early 14th century, the pint-size country sponsored epic sea voyages to lands as far away as South America, Central Africa, India and even Japan, in search of gold, slaves, spices and other treasures. Seven centuries later, via Nissan, that farthest point of exploration, Japan, was transporting the world — or at least the world of motor journalism — back to Portugal to ogle the latest sheet-metal treasures.

The scribes didn’t spend much time pondering Portugal’s history, though: The cars were the stars. Used to gargantuan Nissan Titan pickup trucks bigger than anyone needs or can afford to run on fuel at today’s prices, North American journalists marveled at munchkin-size minicars from Japan. The chunky little March (badged as a Micra outside Asia) generated great interest. It was the tiny 660cc Moco, however, that caused the most levity, provoking many writers to crack “mini-me” jokes as they scrambled for the keys. That dinky four-seater was not the biggest hit of the event, though.

One of Japan’s greatest design icons of recent times, the Cube, generated the most fuss in Lisbon. And it wasn’t just among Americans: The Europeans could not keep their hands off the vehicle’s unique lines, either. Why? For two reasons. First, Japan has kept the current model to itself since it was launched in 2002. One Italian colleague in Lisbon said that he had asked a Nissan designer why the company had not exported such a stylish-looking car. “This is one of Japan’s best ever exteriors, so why keep it all to yourself?” he queried. He was told that the Nissan bean counters, in all their wisdom, considered the Cube to be a purely domestic model, a basic boxy-shaped car for the masses. They never imagined that people in other countries might also find its retro looks infectious.

The second reason for the interest in the Cube is that Nissan has seen the error of its ways. The next-generation Cube, due out in 2009, will be the first version of the car to be sold globally, and one variation may even come with an electric motor.

For me, the European-spec X-Trail diesel and Infiniti SUVs impressed the most. The X-Trail’s perky performance, excellent fuel economy and clean emissions bodes well for the car’s imminent launch in Japan in autumn. But for diesels to become commonplace here, Nissan and other carmakers will have to work hard to remove the “noisy, smelly, dirty” stigma attached to them. The Infiniti SUVs, like the new FX50, offers controversial styling but high luxury and superb performance. Also driving the Infiniti range for the first time, many British writers complimented the brand’s quality. These luxury vehicles, which include versions of the Skyline and Fuga sold in Japan, and crossover SUVs, go on sale in Europe later this year. In contrast to Toyota rival Lexus, which offers economical four-cylinder diesels as well as V6 and V8 cars, Infiniti’s sole focus on V6 and V8 engines might not score high with buyers looking for fuel-efficient, low- COe-emitting vehicles. But they do offer customers a great combination of performance and handling — packaged in aggressive, sporty exteriors.

As one Brit commented, “The Infinitis are a lot more exciting than their Lexus rivals, in looks and handling. They could well sell better than Lexus models, I think.” In a country where Europe’s Age of Discovery began, more than 600 writers uncovered enough about unfamiliar Nissan cars to fill a book — one hefty enough to match the big thinking behind this event.

Peter Lyon is a 20-year veteran motoring journalist who covers Japan’s auto industry for more than a dozen publications worldwide.

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