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The Man Behind the Nissan Look

Nissan's design guru Shiro Nakamura discusses the Sentra redesign and other new models that will hit the U.S. by the end of 2006

When Shiro Nakamura left truckmaker Isuzu (ISUZF ) for Nissan (NSANY ) in the fall of 1999, the automotive designer was joining a car company in turmoil. Just six months earlier, France's Renault had agreed to take a controlling stake in the company, installing Carlos Ghosn, who recruited Nakamura, to lead the turnaround.

Today, Ghosn's choice of designer looks like one of his best decisions. Spurred on by up-to-date, eye-catching designs supplied by the company's design teams, Nissan's lineup today bears little resemblance to its tired models of the late 1990s. Its profit margins, which are the highest in the auto industry, are just as changed. While not all the new models have been hits, the likes of the Murano crossover SUV, Altima sedan, and the innovative Cube compact in Japan have aided Nissan's revival.

For all that, Nakamura still has much to prove. Starved of new models over the least year, Nissan's sales have been slipping after meeting a challenging target to increase car sales from 2.6 million to 3.6 million by September, 2005. Some designs have been questioned. The Quest minivan has disappointed in the U.S., and a new Sentra sedan (see BW Online, 11/21/05, "Nissan: A Letdown On The Lot"), slated for launch last year, was delayed after focus groups indicated they disliked the design.

Still, Nakamura and his team will have plenty of chances for more success in the coming months. Nissan's current business plan, called Value Up, will also see the company launch 28 new or remodeled cars during fiscal 2008. That process will start in earnest in the U.S. this month with the launch of the Versa, a new entry-level subcompact -- sold as the Tiida in Japan -- and updated versions of the Quest minivan and Maxima sedan. In October, the redesigned Sentra will finally make its debut. And before yearend the remodeled Altima -- Nissan's best seller in the U.S. -- and the Infiniti G35 sedan will be added to the list (see BW Online, 4/11/06, "Nissan Gears Up For U.S. Race").

No one will be watching how those models are received more closely than Nakamura, whose role in March was widened to chief creative officer, encompassing design and brand management. On May 25, Nakamura discussed Nissan's newest designs and more with BusinessWeek's Tokyo correspondent Ian Rowley at Nissan's headquarters. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q:Your role recently changed from head of design to chief creative officer. What does that mean?

A:I was senior vice-president of design, but chief creative officer is wider than that -- it's all of Nissan's brand-related visual expression. For example, showrooms, motor-show displays, or the design of name cards -- I'm overseeing these activities. I'm working with the architects [designing] Nissan's new headquarters in Yokohama. Visual identities have to be consistent. I want to make a very consistent message.

Q:Does that make it harder to stay focused on car design?

A:No. We have teams dedicated to these activities. Of course, I have to reserve some time for these kinds of activities, but I don't think it has a negative impact on the designs of the cars. If anything, it's more stimulating and inspiring.

Q:What will be the impact of new models like the Versa, Sentra, and Altima in the U.S.?

A:The Versa is a strategic move for us to [get into] a new, smaller segment, and the Sentra is the last model which had been designed [under Nissan's former management]. The Sentra and the new Altima are a step forward from the current lineup. They're much more modern and have broader proportions. In terms of design, the Sentra and Altima are not very far [apart].

Q:That's quite a leap from the current Sentra.

A:The Sentra has caught up with the Altima. The model change from the current Sentra to the new Sentra is quite a big gap.

Q:Yet, the Sentra is a year late. Why the delay?

A:[The original redesign] was too different. The current Sentra is very conservative, so the step was maybe too much. So we pushed back.

Q:Where were the biggest changes made?

A:Upper body. [In particular], the D-pillar had a unique shape, but it was little bit too unique. So we adjusted to make it more like the Altima. We changed maybe 20%, but that is enough for it to become acceptable.

Q:Will the Sentra delay make Nissan change the designs you will approach in future?

A:No. We sometimes have this type of situation. We cannot be 100% right, but if you bring people in [before the design is finished] you lose momentum.

Q:So how does the process work right now?

A:At the beginning, we listen to people very much. We listen to what kind of values they want. But we never ask what kind of shape. It's more about the concept or their desire. Then, once we finish, we show it to customers. In this case, we showed the customers and they said they weren't happy with it. So the company decided, and Carlos Ghosn decided, to modify it.

Q:Waiting a year is a big decision. Was there a heated debate?

A:The answer from the customers was very clear and the decision from Carlos Ghosn was clear: Make it more attractive. I think it's a very good decision. We think the design after one year is much more appealing. The current Sentra is [still] one of our top-selling cars.

Q:What feedback have you been getting about new models?

A:The dealers are very excited. We announced that we will launch 28 vehicles during Value Up. This year there will be nine new models -- one in the first half and eight in the second.

Q:How do designs for Japan and the U.S. compare?

A:In America, the sedan is the big model with a long history and the most authentic category of passenger vehicle. The sedan has a long history and when designing a sedan you have to keep to some rules. You cannot change sedans drastically.

In Japan, where there are so many different cars and styles of cars, the sedan is not a very successful segment. There are lots of new elements to the car market in Japan. It's very hard to create in just one direction. Japan is the most unpredictable market. That's very exciting. That's why a car like the Cube [Nissan's popular boxy compact] could be accepted in Japan.

Q:Does Nissan approach design differently to other auto makers?

A:The way we work is not so different to other companies. But [at Nissan] the position of design is in quite a strong position and is considered a big contributor to enhancing brand and the attractiveness. When I joined Nissan, I'd already talked with Carlos Ghosn. It showed me how the company treated design.

Q:Carlos Ghosn has complained that modern car designs today are too similar. How do you create a Nissan "look"?

A:It's not easy. We always want to challenge and create new designs. We always want to be one step ahead. We don't want to have just one style of design attached to every car.

Q:Do Nissan designs look Japanese?

A:previously there was never really a strong vision for creating Japanese design. But if Nissan, Toyota, or Honda are creating our own designs, rooted in our culture, it is automatically Japanese. The Cube is obviously Japanese, while the Z looks like an international sports car. But if you go up close, you can find some Japanese-ness. It's like food. French cooking by a Japanese chef -- there will be some kind of Japanese taste.

Q:How much is the recent success of Honda, Toyota, and Nissan down to the strength of their auto designs?

A:It used to be that the strengths of Japanese cars were quality, value for money, and fuel efficiency. But I think that design is already starting to be part of that number. Strong design has been a factor in the success of today's Altima. In the past, design was there -- the 240Z was always affordable, practical, with good performance and design -- but it wasn't the case for every car. We want to stabilize design as one of the strong characteristics of Japanese cars.

Q:Will Nissan launch the next-generation Cube in the U.S.?

A:We are thinking about going outside of Japan, but we didn't finalize which markets yet. Japan is changing most radically, but even in the U.S. and Europe people are willing to accept a unique shape. Not the majority, but maybe enough customers. In the U.S. even a small amount of customers can be big enough. We feel there's an opportunity [to introduce the Cube in overseas markets] and we'd like to expand.
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