Nissan Motor Co.’s struggle to move ahead of Honda Motor Co. in the U.S. hangs on the new Altima being shown today in New York. It’s designed to boost the sedan’s appeal after it passed Accord in 2011 to become the No. 2-selling car.
Nissan’s ability to restart plants faster than Honda after last year’s earthquake in Japan helped Altima’s U.S. sales jump 17 percent in 2011 to trail only Toyota Motor Corp.’s Camry among passenger cars. Honda fell back in March, with sales down 5 percent, while Altima topped Accord by more than 50 percent in the first quarter.
Mid-size sedans are critical to automakers’ identity and success because they tend to be profitable vehicles as well as top sellers. While the current Altima is making a strong finish, the new version faces a formidable array of rivals including a new Accord, General Motors Co.’s restyled Malibu and Ford Motor Co.’s revamped Fusion.
“That’s the most competitive, crowded segment in the U.S. at the moment, and it’s going to stay that way for the foreseeable future,” said Jesse Toprak, industry analyst for TrueCar.com in Santa Monica, California. “With a new Accord coming, it’s going to be tougher for Altima to keep its spot.”
Carlos Ghosn, who leads both Nissan and alliance partner Renault SA, is pushing the Japanese carmaker to outsell Honda in the U.S. and eventually take 10 percent of the market, up from 8.2 percent last year. One of the surprises among U.S. sales figures announced yesterday was that Nissan edged out Honda by 2,000 vehicles in the first quarter.
The new Altima, shown today at the New York auto show, is Yokohama-based Nissan’s best chance to keep and widen that lead.
“They have a window of opportunity, but it’s closing,” said Jeremy Anwyl, vice chairman of Edmunds.com. While Honda’s supply is still constrained, the Tokyo-based company is working hard to boost production.
Increasing U.S. market share to 10 percent would require adding 300,000 sales, based on analysts’ estimates for the year. That target isn’t necessarily for 2012, said David Reuter, a company spokesman. Ghosn said yesterday that the company will probably boost U.S. deliveries by at least 14 percent this year to 1.2 million, which would be well short of a 10 percent share.
“We see Honda as being certainly a near-term objective,” Brian Carolin, Nissan’s head of North American sales, said in a January interview in Detroit.
Nissan, which used to sell cars and trucks under the Datsun name, had led Honda through 1987. By then, Honda had started a premium brand, Acura, which topped 100,000 sales for the first time in 1988. Aided by rising Civic and Accord sales, Honda jumped ahead of Nissan, which started selling the Infiniti line late the next year.
Nissan sold 268,981 Altimas in the U.S. last year while Toyota had 308,510 Camry deliveries. Ford’s Fusion also outsold Honda’s models, rising 13 percent to 248,607. Honda’s Civic slid 9.7 percent to 240,259 and its Accord, normally its top-selling car, fell 17 percent to 235,625.
Nissan’s U.S. sales rely on Altima, said Jessica Caldwell, an industry analyst with Edmunds.com.
“If Altima has a good month, then Nissan has a good month,” Caldwell said, who is also based in Santa Monica. “In terms of Nissan’s future success, a lot rides on this and a lot of people are expecting a lot.”
More Power, Mileage
The 2013 Altima that begins sales in July keeps the basic sloping profile of the current car. The base version will have a $21,500 starting price, featuring a 2.5-liter, 182-horsepower engine that gets 38 miles per gallon in highway driving, Nissan said today. That compares with the $20,550 base model currently sold, with a 175-horsepower engine that gets 32 mpg highway.
Smartphone connectivity and Bluetooth audio functions are standard on all grades of the new car, as are its “zero-gravity” seats the company said resemble those used in NASA spacecraft. The top-end Altima with a 270-hp, V-6 engine will cost $30,080, Nissan said.
Nissan faces pressure in the mid-size sedan segment, led by Camry the past decade, that may be the most intense ever, said Toprak.
Along with a new Accord, due by September, and recently revamped Camry, GM is selling a new Malibu and Ford’s restyled Fusion arrives late this year. Volkswagen AG, Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motors Corp. are also boosting supplies of their respective mid-size cars, the Passat, Sonata and Optima sedans.
‘Room for Everybody’
Mid-size cars accounted for about 17 percent of new vehicles purchased in the U.S. last year, Toprak said. The segment should grab 19 percent of total sales this year as industry deliveries climb as much as 13 percent to 14.5 million autos, he said.
“The good news is there’s room for everybody this year,” Toprak said.
Accord sales were hurt by inventory issues related to Japan’s natural disasters, followed by Thai flooding that also cut supplies of some parts.
Altima has also benefited from increased incentive spending, which rose 44 percent to $4,006 in February compared to a year ago, according to Autodata Corp. The industry average for passenger cars was $2,186.
“Someone that is buying a middle-of-the-road-type of vehicle is generally more price-sensitive,” Caldwell said.
Honda has signaled it won’t surrender to Nissan or Altima. The company resumed normal production at its North American factories in December and January.
Until the new Accord arrives, Honda is ramping up production of the current car at its Marysville, Ohio, plant, to recover sales lost last year, Tetsuo Iwamura, Honda’s executive vice president and North American chief operating officer, said in an interview last month. Output at the factory jumped 49 percent in the year’s first two months from a year ago.
“Accord should make a comeback,” he said. “When you see the new Accord, you’ll see that we’ve taken a straight road with it, not going right or left,” Iwamura said, without elaborating.