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Interesting article from the Philadelphia Inquirer:

'360 Tour' celebrates Nissan turnaround

Back from near-bankruptcy, the firm aims to conquer with fuel-efficient cars.

By Warren Brown

Washington Post

SAN FRANCISCO - It is a grand act of corporate bragging. But it's deserved.

Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., which flirted with bankruptcy in 1999, took over this city for the first half of June to announce that it is now healthy, wealthy, and well on its way to becoming a dominant player in the global auto industry.

To underscore that point, the company brought along a fleet of 70 vehicles, including many, such as the small Micra sedan and miniature Cube wagon, that could become competitors in the North American auto market.

In that regard, what Nissan is calling its "360 Tour" here, is more than a bragging rite. It is a warning, especially to domestic car companies that are now overloaded with big pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles at a time of big increases in gasoline prices.

Of course, Nissan officials here aren't putting things that way. Ostensibly, for them, this two-week celebration of what some company executives called "Nissanness" is a fitting closure to a period in which they pulled themselves from a sea of red ink onto the solid ground of prosperity.

That miracle was accomplished under the aegis of the Renault/Nissan Alliance, a euphemistic description of French automaker Renault S.A.'s purchase of a controlling 37 percent interest in Nissan, Japan's third-largest car company, in 1999. The alliance has been led by Carlos Ghosn, Nissan's president and chief executive officer, who formerly served as executive vice president and chief operating officer of Renault.

In April 2002, Ghosn, an ambitious taskmaster, launched what was called the Nissan Revival Plan. His goal was to put the company in position to sell one million more cars and trucks globally in 2005 than it sold in 2001, and to have an 8 percent annual operating profit and zero debt.

But in March, the end of the company's 2003 fiscal year, Nissan already had exceeded those goals. In posting an overall profit of $7.29 billion, the company also reported an industry-leading 11.1 percent operating profit and a rather stunning 21.1 percent return on investment.

Nissan sold 3.1 million cars and trucks in 190 countries in the last fiscal year - a 10.4 percent increase over its performance in fiscal 2002, and far different from its lackluster performance in 1999 when it barely managed to grind out a total of one million sales in Japan and North America.

The company's goals are embodied in its "Nissan 360" program. The number signifies that Nissan has come full circle from virtual death to resurrection and is now preparing to rain on competitors' product parades.

That is the real reason for the gargantuan media event that has automotive and business journalists, industry analysts, and suppliers descended upon San Francisco from all over the world in two-day "waves" to examine Nissan's global wares.

I ignored models such as the Maxima and Altima sedans, and the Nissan Titan pickup truck and its two SUV derivatives, the Nissan Armada and Infiniti QX56, already on sale in the United States. I wanted to look at the potential product threats to domestic car companies, and there were plenty, including a neatly packaged, 36-mile-per-gallon, diesel-powered, compact X-Trail sport-utility vehicle.

But the real threats are in a bevy of machines, generally ignored by U.S. car companies, that could become high-demand models among American consumers in search of fun, funky rides that can also offer lots of utility without holding them hostage to the gasoline pump.

These are the top Nissan "U.S. Market Threat Vehicles" on my list:

Micra sedan: It is available with a 1.5-liter turbo-diesel or a 1.4-liter gasoline engine. Both engines are four-cylinder models. Each is capable of high mileage and spirited urban running. The Micra sells well in Europe.

Cube and Cube Cubic: Think of the Cube as a cuter, funkier, higher-mileage version of Toyota's Scion xB and Honda's Element, both of which are popular urban box wagons on sale in the United States. U.S. car companies have no entries in this itty-bitty SUV/wagon competition.

Primera wagon: This is an excellent urban family taxi, especially for small families. It offers lots of utility, gets about 30 m.p.g. from its 2-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine, and parks easily anywhere.

X-Trail diesel: You've got to love a compact SUV that has lots of personality and highway oomph and gets 36 m.p.g. A best-seller in Europe.

Altima gas-electric mid-size sedan: This one is coming to the United States in 2006 as a 2007 model. It is still under development. The Altima is on sale in the States as a gasoline model.

Nissan executives were passionately evasive in comments about which of the displayed vehicles they might introduce in the U.S. market, and when. But Nissan executive vice president and board member Tadao Takahashi, in an unguarded moment, offered a hint when pressed on possible U.S. retail plans for the Micra and Cube.

"We are watching your gasoline prices very carefully," Takahashi said. "If gas prices continue to go up, we will decide then."
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