How Nissan Created A Monster

When the creative types at Nissan Motor Co.'s (NSANY ) La Jolla (Calif.) design studio got orders to create the company's first full-size pickup truck, they quickly realized they were out of their element. So they hit the road. The crew went to feed lots, off-road rallies, and construction sites to interview and observe truck owners in their natural habitats. Diane Allen, who led the exterior-design team, remembers taking a group of Nissan executives from Japan to a Home Depot (HD ) in Southern California to watch shoppers load up their vehicles. Says Allen: "Our naiveté about the segment was a blessing in disguise."

The result is a monster pickup that stands out even in crowded parking lots. The 2004 Titan, which hit sales floors in December, has already won top honors from the likes of Car & Driver and Four Wheeler magazines. It's considered to be the first Japanese truck to go head-to-head with the biggest of the big iron from Ford (F ), GMC (GM ), and Dodge (DCX ). "They were looking for something tough and rugged," says consultant George Peterson of AutoPacific Inc. "Nissan has created a style that signifies durability."

Nissan's research told the company that truck buyers love their vehicles to be the biggest and most powerful. So the aptly named Titan packs a category-leading 305 horsepower and 379 foot-pounds of torque, even in the $23,000 entry- level model. And when it comes to hauling things, Nissan listened closely to customers. Allen's team added a system of metal rails inside the bed so that cargo can be tied down from different angles.

The Nissan designers learned several things about truck owners from their research. Many buyers use the trucks as family cars. So in the King Cab version, the rear doors open 180 degrees in reverse. That helps with putting groceries and kids in the back seat. And Nissan found that many truck drivers also use their trucks as kind of high-tech mobile offices. So the Titan has an optional center console that allows them to store and lock up a laptop computer. The front passenger seat also folds down to function like a desk.

What really makes the Titan stand out, though, is its exterior: a muscular front end with a big chrome bumper and sweeping headlights that make it look like a charging bull. Indeed, Nissan likes the look so much, the company is now building a family of pickups and SUVs around the Titan's distinctive look. "People were ready for architectural change, not a reinvention," Allen says. They got both.

By Christopher Palmeri in Los Angeles

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