Nissan Has Forgotten How to Take Styling Risks

By Chris Haak


In the mid 1990s, Nissan found itself in a very difficult position. Sales were falling, the lineup was dull and unexciting, Infiniti had just been left in the dust by its rival Lexus, and the company was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

French auto giant Renault stepped in with a large investment in Nissan, and sent Carlos Ghosn, then an executive vice president at Renault, to Nissan to act as COO. Ghosn implemented necessary cost cuts and restructuring, along with several new models (many of which were on the drawing board when he arrived), and Nissan has been pretty consistently successful – in terms of sales and in financial terms – since then.

Much of Nissan’s success in the early part of the 21st century can be attributed to products that were introduced around that time. Some bona fide hits during that timeframe included several Nissan models: the Altima sedan, Murano crossover, Frontier midsize pickup, as well as several Infiniti models: the G35 sedan and coupe and the FX35 and FX45 crossover. These successful models had a few things in common: they were generally better looking, better performing, and a better value than most of their competition. Not only that, but vehicles like the Murano and FX crossover practically defined their own segments, so buyers rewarded Nissan for its innovation by snapping up the vehicles.

The life cycle of most of the aforementioned vehicles has ended and Nissan has created new generations of all of them. Unfortunately, probably spoiled by the success of the prior generation, Nissan has chosen to replace each of the above vehicles with new versions that – absent a trained eye – are nearly impossible to distinguish from their predecessors. Sure, the new versions have additional comfort and safety features, usually more horsepower, perhaps better fuel economy – but the fact remains that the risk-taking culture of a company on the ropes has been replaced by a risk-averse culture of gradual improvement and styling tweaks instead, and that’s unfortunate.

Let’s take a look at a few examples.
First, the 2005 Altima (above) and the 2007 Altima (below).

Next is the 2007 Murano (above) and the new 2009 Murano (below).

Here is the 2006 Infiniti G35 sedan (above) and the 2007 G35 sedan (below).

Last, let’s compare the 2006 Infiniti FX45 (above) with the just-revealed 2009 FX50 (below).
I won’t argue that the newer versions of the above vehicles do not look more modern and tidy – and probably more attractive than their forbears. But really, aside from a tuck here, a tweak there, and some extra curves on the body, is there really much visual difference between the generations? The extraordinary development costs of any new vehicle today mean that styling has to last for five years or more; when after those five years, the new version looks almost like the five year old version, it means that ten years from the Murano’s 2002 debut, the 2012 Murano will look eerily similar to the 2002 model. Was this such a good idea on Nissan’s part?

It’s not to say that Nissan does not take risks; the upcoming GTR supercar looks unlike any other Nissan model, and only shares a few styling cues with its previous generations. It’s also a risk for Nissan dealers to sell a $70,000-plus sports car when the next-most-expensive vehicle in the showroom is somewhere around $30,000 less expensive. I hope for Nissan’s sake that customers disagree with me and that they aren’t worried that their 2012 Altima looks nearly identical to a 2002 model, but the fact is, Nissan has clearly made the choice not to take styling risks with this latest generation of products.

Update 8:00 p.m.: In response to seano’s comment below, and to add a more international flair to this post, here are photos of the X-Trail:
The 2004 Nissan X-Trail (above) and the 2008 Nissan X-Trail (below).

Thanks for the tip, seano!

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Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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  1. Nissan has some great design resources available to them in two places. One, their California design studio. Two, the people at Renault. If they choose to not use anything from those places, then that’s their fault and they’ll suffer in the marketplace for it. Look at Toyota. For decades it was ok for their cars to look boring, because they were better than all the other cars in quality. Now that the quality is reaching parity, boring isn’t working so well anymore.

  2. peerin b., Toyota is still way ahead of the other car companies on quality if you look at their complete line. I agree that that their products lack visual appeal, but to say there is parity with other car companies from a quality perspective is a huge exaggeration.

  3. You also forgot the fact that the new Nissan X-Trail looks almost exactly the same as the old model despite being on a new platform and having almost no carryover parts….

    One could argue that this approach is a styling risk. Nissan have assured us they asked their customers what they like about their existing cars…and that they said they really liked the styling. You’d have to say that building an all new car that looks much like the old car is a hell of a risk but you can’t argue that it doesn’t build brand & model recognition…as opposed to the constant ‘what the hell is that?’ approach often applied by car makers…

    Nissan’s still don’t set me on fire though…

  4. Do you know how the top auto companies stay on top? By not messing with a successful formula.

    Take Toyota and Honda for example. Every new Camcord is but an evolution. And guess what, more and more sales…lets them focus on other consumer preferences (like quality)…If they get a creative bone, they simply create a new product (Scion vehicles, Element).

    Remember Ford Taurus? Revolution every model change can screw up brand equity big time. Can you imagine if Nissan changed the Altima radically (again, by the way) and results turned Quest like?

    Last example: Chrysler – revolutionary designs since the 80s. Never kept consistency, which is why they are always struggling with spikes here and there.

    Nissan did what they needed to do to turnaround through some great designs. Now they need to maintain what they earned and branch out in different ways (E.g. GTR, EX35…)

  5. Kenneth, spoken like a true Nissan supporter. I owned a Pathfinder for a few years and it was a great vehicle for me (unfortunately, too small inside for our needs, so we bought a van).

    So many companies in many industries have a successful product and are too complacent to replace it with anything but a spruced up version of the same thing. An excellent example of this is the Motorola RAZR phone; the first one was a smash hit, but follow-ups have failed in the marketplace, and Motorola’s CEO lost his job partially as a result of not having a follow-up to the RAZR.

  6. Kenneth, for Chrysler stuggling problems, it was mainly due to quality then consistency. They have revolutionairy design in 1957 when they released the 2nd-gen of the “Forward look” designed by Virgil Exner. But it was according to some auto historians rushed too fast too soon, some complained about the quality problems. (Also Exner recovered from a heart attack, so the 1959-60-61 models was done by various stylists who improvised. If the Chrysler was nice, it’s Plymouth who suffered the most, especially when the 1960 model was introduced with its awkward frond end. Dodge did better but suffered as well with the 1961 reverse fins aka the elephant ears.

    Then the big nail for consistency was 1962 when they introduced the ill-fated “plucked chicken” Dodge and Plymouth, (and there was even some aborted plans for a 1962 DeSoto)

    I taught of something, what if instead of going with light evolutions, how about very few evolutives touches or almost no changes (visually exterior but the mechanics under the body could changes) during a 20 years or more span like the Citroen 2CV and DS, VW original Beetle, Austin Mini, Renault 4, Checker Marathon, etc… or the Hindustan Ambassador?

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