Remember When Nissan Was Noticeable?

Not all that long ago the Japanese Big Three were Toyota, Honda and Nissan. Nowadays the last-named seems to have lost its momentum in the market while the other two keep driving forward. Why?

By Gary S. Vasilash

“Remember when driving was fun?” actress Brie Larson opens a new Nissan commercial rhetorically asking before she blitzes her way through the array of new vehicles that Nissan has launched, or is about to.

At one point she’s being the wheel of the Z Proto and acknowledges that there are three pedals down there. Enthusiasts will get it. Others may be confused.

Will Brie boost Nissan? (Image: Nissan)

Nissan is rolling out 10 new or improved products over 20 months, so its showrooms will be fresh with sheet metal.

For those who are interested in one-pedal driving, Larson drives in a Nissan Ariya, the new EV that is anticipated to launch this year. (EV drivers will get it. Others may be confused.)

Although Nissan showed improvement in the first quarter, with its sales up 14.8% from Q1 2020, it really isn’t a good reflection of what it has on offer right now.

Consider: the Nissan Division had sales of 266,482 units. That’s Versa, Sentra, Altima, Maxima, LEAF, 370Z, GT-R, Kicks, Frontier, Titan, Pathfinder, Armada, Rogue, Murano, NV, and NV200.

Ford sold 277,233 trucks. F-Series, Ranger, E-Series, Transit, Transit Connect, and Heavy Trucks. 203,797 of those were F-Series.

What accounts for Nissan’s lack of traction in the market is certainly mystifying.

The question is whether Captain Marvel will save the day.

Q1 Sales Surprises

Yes, customers are back. But some of what they’re buying is surprising.

By Gary S. Vasilash

Although it was April Fool’s Day when the first quarter 2021 numbers for U.S. sales were announced by OEMs, the smiles were real in offices across the land as the SAAR (seasonally adjusted annual rate) rose to approximately 16.5-million units, or about a 12% sales increase compared to Q1 2020, which, of course, contained the first month of the pandemic in America.

2021 Toyota Prius Prime. There was a 70.6% sales increase for the model in Q1 2021. Who saw that coming? (Image: Toyota)

This wasn’t supposed to happen

Plenty of people who seem to have a particular affection for liking the use of fossil fuel and has therefore been gloating over the fact that Toyota Prius sales have been dropping must have gotten a surprise. Despite that fact gasoline prices have been low for the past several months and still under $3.00 per gallon ($2.85 in the U.S. as of now, according to the Energy Information Agency), Prius sales rose 22.4% in Q1, to 14,050 units. (For a not apples-to-apples comparison: Chevy sold 7,089 Camaros during Q1.)

What is more striking is that all Toyota hybrids had a combined 152% increase, to 125,318 units. (“Thank you, RAV4,” they must be saying down in Plano.)

***

The Big Three?

Remember when that was General Motors, Ford and Chrysler?

GM is still big. Overall sales of 642,250 vehicles.

The other Two, however:

Ford, including Lincoln, had sales of 521,334.

FCA, including Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Fiat, Alfa Romeo, had sales of 469,651.

Toyota, including Lexus, 603,066. That’s a lot more than either Ford or FCA.

***

This wasn’t supposed to happen, 2

Everyone knows that (1) sedans are nearly dead in the market and (2) economical vehicles are so 2010.

Nissan, including Infiniti, had a good first quarter, with overall sales of 285,553 vehicles, which is a 10.8% increase over Q1 2020.

But there are two absolute standout vehicles in the Nissan lineup:

  • Versa: 22,394 vehicles, or an 83.9% increase
  • Sentra: 37,238 vehicles, or a 55.9% increase

Admittedly, crossovers like the Kicks (24,421 units) and the Rogue (86,720) were big contributors, the fact that the Versa and the Sentra did so well ought to make some analysts reconsider that whole “Cars are on life support” position.

***

This puts March 21 vs. March 20 in perspective

In March 2020 Hyundai delivered 35,118 vehicles.

In March 2021 Hyundai delivered 75,403 vehicles.

That is a 115% increase.

Still: Wear a mask.

Why the Big 6 (But One) Abandoned Small Cars: It’s Not Just the Margins

Americans are big. Really big. Which might explain the absence of small cars (or almost any cars) being offered by the major OEMs

The accepted wisdom seems to have it that one of the primary reasons why vehicle manufacturers are getting out of cars and pouring more resources into crossovers is because they can make better margins on the latter. Which may be true, but is likely only part of the story.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American adults are, well, large. The average male over 20 is 5-foot 9-inches, weighs 199.8 pounds and has a 40.5-inch waist. The average female is 5-foot 3.5-inches, tips the scales at 170.8 pounds, and has a 38.7-inch waist. According to the CDC, 73.6% of adult Americans are overweight.

Seems like a fairly compelling rationale for large vehicles.

So what’s someone who wants to buy a small car to do? Well, the answer to that is “Look for something that is not all that small.”

That is, of the U.S. Big 6 automakers—GM, Ford, Stellantis NA, Nissan, Toyota and Honda—only GM has a car that can be considered “small.”

Chevrolet still offers the Spark. This car has a 93.9-inch wheelbase, is 143.1-inches long, 62.8 inches wide, and 58.4 inches high. It has a passenger volume of 83 cubic feet, and a cargo volume behind the rear seat of 11.1 cubic feet.

2021 Chevy Spark. Small. But big. (Image: Chevrolet)

The next smallest is the Fiat 500X, although the company positions it as being a crossover rather than a car, but for the sake of argument, let’s include it since it has a design that is very much like the now-departed (and tiny) 500. The 500X is gargantuan compared to the Spark, with a 101.2-inch wheelbase and length, width and height dimensions of 167.2, 73.2 and 63.7 inches, respectively. It has a passenger volume of 91.7 cubic feet and cargo area behind the rear seat of 14.1 cubic feet.

Then there’s the Nissan Versa. It has a wheelbase of 103.1 inches—9.2 inches more than the Spark—and an overall length of 177 inches, or almost three feet longer than a Spark. Its other dimensions are 68.5 inches width, 57.3 inches height, a passenger volume of 88.9 cubic feet and a cargo volume of 14.7 cubic feet.

Whereas people might associate “Honda” with “small cars,” with the Fits remaining on dealer lots the only ones left, the smallest car in the lineup is the Civic Hatch. Which isn’t all that small. It has a 106.3-inch wheelbase, is 177.9 inches long, 70.8 inches wide and 56.5 inches high. It has a passenger volume of 97.2 cubic feet and a cargo volume of 25.7 cubic feet.

The smallest Toyota car is now the Prius, which has a wheelbase of 106.3 inches and an overall length of 180 inches—or more than three feet longer than a Spark. It is 69.3 inches wide, 57.9 inches high, and offers 93.1 cubic feet of passenger volume and 27.4 cubic feet of cargo capacity.

Finally, there’s Ford, the company that was the first mass producer of passenger cars, the company that is now shifting its offerings away from, well, passenger cars. It currently has two cars on offer, and production has stopped for the Fusion, so that leaves the Mustang. Which is a completely bizarre thing to have in the context of a Spark. But here it is. The Mustang has a 107.1-inch wheelbase and an overall length of 188.5 inches. It is 81.9 inches wide, 54.3 inches high, and has a passenger and cargo volume of 82.8 and 13.5 cubic feet, respectively.

But consider this: the Spark actually offers more passenger volume than the Mustang. Not much more (0.2 cubic feet, or about the size of a football). But more.

So it might be a reasonable choice for a big American looking for a small car.–gsv