The cars we loved.
There was a time when the name Nissan (or Datsun before it) stood for performance and attitude. Even as far back as the late ’70s it was known for building dependable, exciting and affordable cars in all price ranges. Before trucks and SUV’s began to dominate the market, Nissan made sporty coupes and sedans well before it became fashionable to do so as a brand attribute. In fact the term “4 Door Sports Car” (4DSC) was made popular by the
Maxima in the late ’80s.
Since that time Nissan created one performance hit after another: the Sentra SER, 240SX and the 300ZX. Even their SUVs like the XTerra had better acceleration than many cars and was regarded as a good handling machine on or off road.
Then something happened, or started to. While the company never stopped making the occasional high performance car, eventually bringing the mighty Skyline GTR to America, the rest of it’s line was not holding up it’s end of the aesthetics or performance bargain.
Sure spunky anomalies like the Juke would come along and shake things up, but Nissan was loosing it’s soul while they were too busy building the Armadas, Pathfinders and Titan trucks they figured Americans wanted.
Even the Maxima grew soft and blended in the shadow of the bloated Altima. The gaps left in the performance line up meant that buyers were forced to choose between the skateboard thrills of the Juke or the extreme performance of the Skyline GTR. The Z car had kept up much of the middle, but was growing old and beginning to show it’s turn of the century engineering.
Performance aside, Nissan lost the image it once had as a Japanese Pontiac – that being the maker of exciting cars. Honda was known for practicality, Subaru safety and Toyota for mass market reliability. Nissan had all of those elements, yet held a special place in the heart of motor heads for rear wheel drive cars like the 240Z and a string of cars with the “SX” suffix at the end of their names. Even fans of small cars could point to a long history of sub compacts with a sporting edge that went back to the Datsun 510 of the 1970s.
The last time the company suffered a slight performance deficient was during the Z car gap. During that transition from the last 300ZX in 2000 to the first 350Z in 2002, the company leaned heavily on it’s performance heritage in it’s marketing campaigns. With the 240SX ending production, the Maxima and Sentra SE-R were all that was left of any excitement. Nissan’s line up had a distinctive look and image still attached to it even while it’s premier halo car was still in development.
Today with it’s performance line much smaller and overshadowed by truck and crossover offerings, Nissan has not made any major attempts to cash in on it’s sporting heritage. The reputation of the amazing Skyline GTR itself is enough to launch the aspirations of a million Sentras, yet Nissan has made no connection recently by omitting a SE-R version from the line up. Instead it chose to create an awkwardly proportioned car that aspired to be upmarket while missing the important details that Honda or Toyota has nailed. Safety, one of it’s current marketing points is boring and should be a given in any modern car.
Safety can be exciting if accident avoidance due to a well tuned suspension, steering and brakes system is whats being highlighted. Nissan so far has missed that opportunity, even as Volvo, a safety leader is beginning to lean in that direction. While most Nissan cars are not easy to look at (current Sentra for example), it’s trucks are improving (when they are not copying old Ford designs) or just straight up knockouts (Murano).
Maybe the era of performance cars as a brand aspiration is passe (I’m looking at you Dodge). If it is, Nissan should lean on it’s performance engineering heritage and apply it to crossovers and trucks as the new performance machines. It did that to a small degree with the XTerra, but that vehicle was doomed in a world of uni body trucks that acted like cars but were high enough off the ground to make its owners feel safe and anti-minivan.
Other trucks like the Pathfinder, one of Nissan’s original SUVs made the switch to a full crossover in 2012, leaving the body on frame crowd of manly tree pulling trucks and never looking back.
That leaves a sea of crossovers in various forms from which the company can easily apply performance car like virtues to. The Murano is easily one of the most attractive crossovers on the market an could easily become the performance and image leader for Nissan despite being smaller than the Pathfinder.
A performance version would do wonders in sprucing up the image of the entire line. Although the Skyline is a halo car, a tarted up truck or SUV will resonate with more buyers as an aspirational vehicle since most of what sells today is some truck like vehicle anyway.
Here’s to hoping Nissan get it together soon.