Nissan positions redesigned Frontier to take back some ground

SUNDANCE, Utah — Nissan helped birth the smaller pickup segment in the U.S. in the 1970s and ’80s and doubled down on it with the introduction of the midsize Frontier in 1997.

But then an odd thing happened: Nissan allowed its bread-and-butter pickup to go from 2004 until now without a redesign.

During that time, Nissan’s Detroit competitors Ford and General Motors exited midsize pickups, and then returned, while Nissan watched its segment share shrivel from a peak of 29.3 percent in 2014 to 6.1 percent last year.

Nissan now wants back in the ring.

A new-generation Frontier, which arrives at dealerships in early September as a 2022 model, is ready to rumble, with larger proportions and a rugged design aimed at the heart of the lifestyle pickup segment.

Dealers are relieved to get a competitive pickup in the showroom.

“The Frontier has gotten long in the tooth, and people just buy them because of price,” said Wilson Sisk, president of Sisk Auto Mall in Hopkinsville, Ky. “Nissan helped build that market, and their direction is to go back and lead that market.”

That’s going to take work. Nissan has slipped to fifth place among midsize pickups, trailing the Toyota Tacoma, Ford Ranger, Jeep Gladiator and Chevrolet Colorado. Last year, the Frontier’s U.S. sales tallied 36,845, thanks largely to positive reliability ratings and a solid value proposition.

But the redesigned Frontier isn’t merely Nissan’s shot at relevance in midsize pickups — it is a rededication to pickups in general.

Nissan’s efforts to crack the full-size pickup market have made little progress. The Titan is dead last in that category, eking out a scant 1.5 percent share of the 1,161,563 full-size pickups sold this year through June.

“The full-size pickup market is mature and ultracompetitive,” Sisk said. “It’s a lot more attainable for Nissan to grab market share in the midsize truck market, which seems wide open.”

U.S. sales executive Judy Wheeler underscored the challenge with full-size pickups and offered a candid assessment of the Titan’s long-term prospects.

“It is very hard, I think, for a Japanese company to really do extremely well against the domestics,” Wheeler, Nissan division vice president of sales and regional operations in the U.S., said on the sidelines of a press event here.

Crossovers, sedans and midsize pickups are the “heart and the future for us,” Wheeler said. “If we can do Titan, we’ll continue to do Titan. But we’re not going to do crazy stuff.”

The outlook for the Titan is even more cloudy as Nissan turns to the need to bring electrification to its more competitive sedan and crossover segments. In addition to the Ariya electric crossover, which arrives next year, Nissan could bring another electric crossover to the U.S., built on the CMF-EV platform shared by partners Renault and Mitsubishi.

“Where do we want to spend the production and the investment for future product portfolio?” Wheeler said. “You’ve got to focus on what are your key core vehicles and not do this peanut butter approach.”

The redesigned Frontier comes at the tail end of a portfoliowide overhaul. The brand has redesigned key models, including the Rogue and Pathfinder crossovers and Sentra sedan.

“Nissan is skiing downhill and leaning forward right now,” Sisk said. “They are doing all the right things.”

With the Frontier update, Nissan delivers a more rugged design and capable powertrain.

The 2022 Frontier is a modern interpretation of the 1986 Nissan Hardbody. It features a larger grille, sits higher and looks more off-road than the current generation. The front end features a chiseled hood, framed by new interlocking headlights.

The rugged styling extends to the rear, with the taillights appearing to clamp to the body sides. The rear fenders combine with the bumper for an athletic stance.

The Frontier acknowledges an often unspoken desire of midsize pickup buyers.

“People like to talk about towing capacity and what it can do off-road,” Sisk said. “But the truth of the matter is 90 percent of people don’t take them off-road. They just want a good-looking truck to drive to Lowe’s and use as their daily driver.”

While the redesigned Frontier arrives with a conventional powertrain — a 3.8-liter direct-injection V-6 engine — future Nissan pickups could be battery-powered.

“I could see that coming,” Wheeler said of an electric powertrain. “The pickup area is kind of interesting. There will be a consumer that’s looking more for a lifestyle vehicle that they can put all their gear in and go off-roading.”

Wheeler noted Nissan’s early lead in the electric vehicle space with the launch of the Leaf hatchback more than a decade ago.

“We have this great base that we created with our consumers, our really strong dealer network that not only can sell [EVs], but also have a service network,” she said.

As Nissan gets back into the pickup competition, dealers are already lobbying for more — including a performance-targeted Nismo variant, given the potential high margins such a model would deliver. Some retailers believe that kind of off-roader could rekindle excitement in the brand and help attract younger, higher-income truck customers.

Nissan launched a similar model in the mid-2000s. That product was powered by a V-6 engine and sported off-road-tuned Bilstein performance shocks, skid plates, 16-inch aluminum-alloy wheels and an electronic locking rear differential.

In the past, Nissan has rolled out a Nismo performance package for the Sentra compact sedan, 370Z and GT-R sports cars and the Juke compact crossover.

But for the Frontier, the manufacturer is noncommittal for now.

Wheeler said she sees a market opportunity for a Nismo Frontier, but she said the possibility is only being researched at this time.

“You’ve got to come with the right features and offerings to make it work,” she said. “It can’t be like an afterthought.”

Ford proves to itself that it can hurry up

DETROIT — Ford Motor Co. slashed an eye-opening 20 months off the product development time of the 2022 Maverick compact pickup not because it could — but because it had to.

An aging lineup and a bureaucratic corporate hierarchy had weakened what former CEO Jim Hackett called Ford’s “competitive fitness.” Almost immediately after becoming CEO in May 2017, Hackett promised faster decision-making, new ways of working focused on what he coined “human-centered design” and a reduction in the number of vehicle architectures to a flexible few, which would cut engineering costs and improve speed to market.

Designers and engineers got their first chance to turn Hackett’s press release promises into reality when Ford in 2018 announced a plan to drop all sedans in North America. Suddenly, there was room in its lineup for an affordable vehicle — but to fill the space and avoid losing entry-level customers, the project would need to move quickly.

But more importantly, more quickly than normal.

An automaker known to favor acronyms, Ford decided to set a WAG — a “wildly audacious goal” — of cutting 25 months out of its typical product development time to create a “white space” product that came to be the Maverick.

Ultimately, it fell five months short of that goal, but the team brought the Maverick to market in about three years by piggybacking off a familiar vehicle platform and completely altering work streams, even doing away with traditional, anxiety-inducing senior leadership review presentations.

“We just did everything very differently than we traditionally would,” Jim Baumbick, Ford’s vice president of enterprise product line management, strategy and planning, told Automotive News. “You couldn’t increment your way there.”

The Maverick went from a blank sheet on a designer’s sketch pad to a fully funded program in 12 weeks — a process that normally takes 12 months. Ford also cut 15 weeks out of the final design milestone, which was completed at the fastest rate in its 118-year history.

“We were able to take time out of just about everything,” Baumbick said.

To start, Ford located the entire Maverick team — from design and engineering to marketing and sales — in one large room in the basement of its Dearborn, Mich., Product Development Center. Design sketches, data and product development metrics covered the walls.

Baumbick designed what he called “sprints,” roughly six- to eight-week chunks of work time to develop and try out new ideas. The thinking was that if the teams worked in shorter bursts, as opposed to monthslong stretches marked by formal management reviews, they would be empowered to try more ideas since it would be easier to recover if those ideas fell through.

“If it really went bad, or wasn’t effective, you didn’t put the whole project at risk,” Baumbick said. “That’s where the ideas really started to roll.”

Some of those ideas revolved around the vehicle’s 54-inch bed, which engineering specialist Keith Daugherty called a “DIY fan’s paradise.”

The team had found, through customer research, that many truck owners create their own hacks for storing items in the bed. They played around with cheap materials, such as cardboard and plastic foam, to quickly design features and see what would work and what wouldn’t.

The end product comes with slots stamped into the side of the bed that can fit 2×6 or 2×4 lumber, which gives owners the option to divide the storage areas or create bike racks.

Product development projects are often shaped by a series of formal senior management reviews, where underlings stand in front of their superiors to discuss where the program is and convince them to sign off on next steps.

“You’re the gladiator in the Colosseum,” said Hau Thai-Tang, Ford’s chief product platform and operations officer. “You’re sitting in this oak-paneled conference room, and everybody else in the room is company officers and vice presidents, assessing your readiness. It’s pretty intimidating.”

Thai-Tang has been on both sides of that process, presenting as the chief engineer of the 2005 Mustang and now sitting among the top bosses.

But he didn’t have to watch any Maverick leaders sweat through a presentation.

That’s because the company chose to eliminate those meetings and replace them with informal walkarounds in the product development room for two hours every Friday.

“The status of the most critical metrics were put on the wall,” Baumbick said. “If somebody wanted a status review, they’d just go to the wall. There was no big song and dance — papers, PowerPoints, all that. It was, ‘Let’s problem-solve in the room.’ ”

Thai-Tang said the process was more relaxed.

“We were standing around the boards and just talking,” Thai-Tang said. “The program teams are the experts. Management’s there to help serve the team, be a coach, adviser or help remove roadblocks.”

While the Maverick was a new vehicle in a new segment for Ford, the team could still borrow heavily from existing vehicles.

The compact pickup sits on the same unibody front-wheel-drive/all-wheel-drive C2 platform that underpins the Bronco Sport, Escape and Lincoln Corsair crossovers in the U.S. as well as the Focus in Europe. The vehicles share common parts such as engines, wiring harnesses, blower motors, seats and switches.

“When you’re developing an architecture, the first vehicle out of the gate is always the hardest, has the longest time duration and usually the highest spending,” Baumbick said. “But if you do it thoughtfully, where you’re thinking about a wide range of products and minimizing the number of systems and modules, then top hats two, three and four become this huge payback in both speed and spending,” he said, referring to models built off a proven platform.

That means there could be programs in the future that come to market even more quickly than the Maverick.

Ford plans additional vehicles on the C2 platform, including a small van built at the same plant in Mexico where it now builds preproduction Maverick models and the Bronco Sport.

The automaker has said it will bring 10 or 11 nameplates to market globally on the C2 platform, representing a volume of 2 million vehicles.

“We have more coming,” Baumbick said. “We’ve already been able to replicate this on another top hat, even beating our speed to market with Maverick in the early phases.

“It’s paying back multiple times over.”

Rivian engaged in early talks for U.K. factory, report says

Rivian Automotive Inc., the EV startup backed by Amazon.com Inc. and Ford Motor Co., is in talks with the U.K. government on building its first manufacturing plant outside the U.S. near the English city of Bristol, Sky News reported.

The investment would probably include a large state-support package, but the U.K. faces competition from Germany and the Netherlands for the site, Sky cited industry sources as saying. Talks with the U.K. government are at an early stage, and an investment could be worth more than 1 billion pounds ($1.4 billion), it said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has taken a keen interest in the progress of the talks, although they are not yet at an advanced stage, Sky reported. Attracting environmentally friendly investment in the U.K. is a key part of Johnson’s plan for post-Brexit Britain and his climate agenda.

Gravity, a 616-acre campus near Bristol, southwest England, has been identified by Rivian as a possible location for the new plant, Sky said.

The company is also exploring locations for a second plant in the U.S. Bloomberg News first reported Rivian’s plans for a European factory in November.

Rogue, Outlander shine as alliance heroes

TOKYO — The redesigned Nissan Rogue and Mitsubishi Outlander, hot-selling crossover stablemates recently rolled out by the Japanese partners, are helping the two troubled automakers bounce back to profitability with improved brand positioning and brighter financial outlooks.

Nissan Motor Co. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. each jumped back into the black in the latest quarter, erasing year-earlier operating losses as the hero nameplates buoyed U.S. sales.

The new offerings, which share substantial platform and drivetrain elements, saw booming demand in the companies’ fiscal first quarter ended June 30. Surging sales helped the brands, both known for their down-market positioning in recent years, rein in incentives and boost value.

U.S. sales of the Rogue, introduced late last year, more than doubled in the April-June quarter, while deliveries of the Outlander, released in April, also more than doubled in the period.

The upswing helped validate the oft-repeated mantra at Nissan and Mitsubishi that a wave of new products will eventually rekindle their flagging fortunes. Both companies are in the middle of restructuring plans but saw enough improvement to lift their outlooks.

Nissan, coming off two straight years of annual operating losses, said it now forecasts a ¥150 billion ($1.37 billion) operating profit in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2022. Nissan had expected to break even.

Mitsubishi also outlined a brighter future. It now expects to rebound from a big operating loss last year to a ¥40 billion ($361.8 million) operating profit in the current fiscal year. It had predicted a fiscal year operating profit of ¥30 billion ($271.4 million).

“A central part of our strategy is our rollout of new and enhanced models, featuring bold designs and compelling vehicle technology, which enables Nissan to improve price point and customer value,” Nissan COO Ashwani Gupta said while announcing his company’s financial results last week. “We are shifting our company from volume, driven by incentive, to value driven by the pricing.”

In the U.S., the redesigned Rogue boosted its share of the crossover segment to 13.7 percent in the latest quarter, up from 9.6 percent a year earlier, according to the Automotive News Research & Data Center, and narrowed the gap with the Toyota RAV4 to about 11,000 vehicles. A year earlier, the Rogue trailed the RAV4 by some 38,000 vehicles.

Gupta said the updated Rogue’s transaction price increased 22 percent, helping boost its net revenue per vehicle about 28 percent. Overall, Nissan was able to increase its net revenue per vehicle by about 16 percent from 2019 levels, compared with only a 2 percent increase a year earlier.

The Rogue and Outlander also enabled Nissan and Mitsubishi to reel in spiffs.

Incentive spending on the Rogue fell to an average of $2,637 in June, from $4,789 in June 2020, according to promotion data from Motor Intelligence. Mitsubishi’s outlays for the Outlander dropped to an average of $2,889 this June, from $3,905 a year earlier.

“All over the world, we have reduced our incentives as a consequence of customers willing to pay,” Gupta said. “Not only did we gain market share, but our product value is recognized more.”

The success of the Rogue and Outlander is significant because the vehicles are an outgrowth of cooperation between the Japanese partners and show potential for future alliance collaboration.

Next up for the partnership is an all-electric minicar that both companies are planning to release sometime next year.

Nissan brought Mitsubishi into a three-way partnership with Renault in 2016, when it bought a controlling 34 percent stake in the smaller Japanese automaker. But the Franco-Japanese alliance teammates have been coping with red ink and slumping sales in the wake of the 2018 arrest and ouster of longtime chairman Carlos Ghosn, who oversaw all three companies.

Mitsubishi hailed the Outlander as its new halo product. In the April-June quarter alone, U.S. sales of the Outlander more than doubled to 6,954 vehicles, from 3,020 the year before.

Mitsubishi said the restyled offering, with upgraded technology, attracted a customer base with higher credit scores. And it helped drive traffic to the brand’s three other nameplates. Total retail volume rose 106 percent to 25,146 vehicles in the April-June period.

CFO Koji Ikeya said Mitsubishi is making good progress toward its goal of deriving half its global sales from electrified vehicles in 2030. It has introduced the Eclipse Cross PHEV compact crossover, its second plug-in hybrid, and plans to release the redesigned Outlander PHEV in the second half of the current fiscal year.

“We continue to focus on product innovations and introducing new models,” Ikeya said.

Naoto Okamura contributed to this report.

Ed Morse acquires 2 Texas dealerships; Advantage Rent a Car owner buys store in Georgia

One of Automotive Newstop 150 dealership groups continued its Texas expansion, while the owner of a rental car company made its first dealership acquisition.

Here’s a look at the two deals that closed this month and involved domestic-brand stores.

Ed Morse Automotive Group expanded its growing Texas footprint with the purchase of two dealerships Monday.

The Delray Beach, Fla., group acquired Donaghe Buick-GMC and Donaghe Ford, both in Greenville, from Chance Donaghe. Greenville is about an hour’s drive northeast of Dallas.

The group now has seven dealerships in North Texas and one in Durant, Okla., near the Texas border.

With the Greenville transaction, Ed Morse now has each of the Detroit 3 automakers represented in Texas, which CEO Teddy Morse described as “one of the greatest truck markets in the country.”

“We have a presence currently in the area, and we are looking to increase that,” Morse told Automotive News. “We have obviously a huge presence in Florida because we’ve been there for 75 years. But two years ago, we bought our first stores in Dallas and since then [have] been acquiring stores in this area. It was an opportunity to increase our footprint here. We’re particularly excited about being able to add Ford to Texas.”

Morse said the group will eventually rename the dealerships Freedom Ford by Ed Morse and Freedom Buick-GMC by Ed Morse.

In early May, the group entered Missouri when it bought four dealerships. It also sold two Florida dealerships to dealer Ken Marks in late May: a Buick-GMC store and a Mazda store, both in Port Richey, Morse said.

With the Donaghe acquisitions, Ed Morse now has 24 dealerships in Florida, Oklahoma, Missouri and Texas.

Ed Morse Automotive ranks No. 60 on Automotive News‘ list of the top 150 dealership groups based in the U.S., retailing 14,169 new vehicles in 2020. Ed Morse, Teddy’s grandfather, started the business in 1946 when he founded Morse Motors.

The owner of Advantage Rent a Car has entered auto retail, buying a standalone GMC dealership in Georgia.

Adel Dealerco on July 20 bought Jerry Kelley GMC in Adel, north of Valdosta and the Georgia-Florida state line. The dealership has been renamed Advantage GMC of Adel, said Dan Miller, co-owner and CEO of Orlando Rentco, the majority owner of Adel Dealerco. Orlando Rentco, of Orlando, owns Advantage Rent a Car.

“We wanted to enter the retailing business so that when we sell our, what we call off-rental cars, or the rental cars that come out of the rental fleet, we wanted a way to sell those in a retail environment instead of just primarily wholesale, which we have done up to this point,” Miller told Automotive News.

Orlando Rentco, also owned by Remon Aziz, in July 2020 bought some Advantage Rent a Car locations and assets after Advantage filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Miller said.

Other minority owners of the GMC dealership include Mark Zurales, dealer principal and vice president of retail operations for Advantage Rent a Car and who formerly worked for dealership groups such as Walser Automotive Group and AutoNation Inc., and Sandy Miller, former CEO of Budget Group Inc. Sandy Miller is Dan Miller’s father.

Dan Miller said he wants Orlando Rentco to continue to acquire nonluxury brand dealerships in second-tier markets that are within a few hundred miles from its eight Advantage airport rental car locations. It has rental car businesses in both Atlanta and Orlando, for example.

The company plans to use dealership service departments to recondition rental cars for used-vehicle sales.

“What we’re able to do is take the rental car, put it on a truck in the morning, get it into the service department, get it reconditioned and by the end of the day, have it ready for sale at the dealership,” Dan Miller said.

Miller said the Advantage website will be upgraded for customers to rent, sell and buy used vehicles.

Bill Fields of Dealer Solutions Mergers and Acquisitions, a dealership buy-sell firm based in Markham, Ontario and with a U.S. office in Jupiter, Fla., represented the seller in the transaction.

Magna finds faster way to electrify trucks

Editor’s note: This story is part of a special section on the accelerating pace of automotive development, engineering, innovation and manufacturing to be published on Monday, Aug. 2.

When it comes to electrifying trucks, automakers want to make sure their vehicles will have the same brawny towing and hauling capabilities that drivers are used to, even with an electrified axle.

That can take a lot of development time, and these days, automakers are in no mood to let anything take a lot of time.

That’s why North America’s largest supplier is looking to speed up truck electrification — without sacrificing a truck’s best utility traits.

Magna International says its eBeam approach will bring new electrified pickups and light-commercial vehicles to market faster by using new drop-in replacements for traditional beam axles, said Ryan Shaw, Magna’s manager of advanced engineering driveline systems in North America.

“It’s one of the purest North American automotive sectors, the pickup truck — the holy grail of North American markets,” Shaw told Automotive News. “That’s where automaker volumes are.

“It’s really important to bridge this gap of traditional powertrains for traditional trucks to electrified trucks,” he added. “There’s a million ways to solve the electrification problem or come up with a solution for pickup trucks. But there’s probably a lot of wrong ways to do it.”

The Canadian megasupplier’s eBeam is an electrified axle that uses a traditional beam axle architecture and places the electric motor and gearbox directly on that solid rear axle.

The eBeam integrates with a full battery-electric or hybrid vehicle powertrain and is available with single or dual motors. More significantly for development schedule purposes, the approach can take place without requiring the introduction of unique suspension, chassis or brake systems, and while preserving towing and payload capacity.

“Because this segment of the market is so important to our customers, and there’s so much volume at stake here, it’s important to come up with solutions quickly and effectively to get drivers into the seats of those vehicles,” Shaw said.

“We really wanted to make sure we were able to meet or exceed what today’s vehicles are capable of,” Shaw said. “If the full-size truck segment is actually going to be electrified, I want to be a part of it to make sure it’s done right, with real truck owners in mind.”

Not having to change an entire vehicle platform to electrify it is Magna’s biggest selling point for the eBeam, in terms of time to market.

“It’s a really big undertaking to completely change a platform in the auto industry, especially one where the volumes are as high as these full-size pickup trucks are,” Shaw said. “If you can maintain some of those pickup points and overall integration strategy, it becomes a nice, smoother transition into the electrification sector for these vehicles.”

The company is working with customers that it is not yet permitted to reveal and expects to demonstrate the technology later this year.

“Our product offers something for our customers that they can essentially drop into their existing frame and chassis architectures,” he added. “We’re utilizing the existing suspension and brake pickup points, and a lot of the same packaging space that their existing systems or architectures have.”