Nissan continues to explore new opportunities to serve the burgeoning Gen-Y market, a group of customers the company covets but which it admits it currently does not serve well given that its entry-level car in the U.S. is still the dumpling-like Sentra sedan. That car is as appealing to teen-agers and twenty-something hipsters as the prospect of having wisdom teeth pulled. The Nissan Sport Concept, which made its world debut at Nissan Design America's brand-new design studio near Detroit a week before the New York Auto Show opened to the public, is the latest in a series of small-car design studies that Nissan has shown in the past year. We think it looks fantastic, and it ought to catch the attention of the O.C. crowd.
The Sport Concept is a two-door hatchback wrought in very crisp, pearl-white sheetmetal that brings to mind both origami and Japanese cartoon-book characters, with a little bit of the spirit of 1980s rally rockets like the Ford Escort RS Cosworth thrown in. The four-seat hatch is, according to Nissan global design head Shiro Nakamura, "a demonstration that we are going into a small-car segment that is not conservative." We'll say. Nakamura won't say whether the Sport Concept will itself reach production, but he allows that it is "a production shape, but enhanced."
Those enhancements include deeply bolstered, racing-style front seats; twenty-inch, six-spoke aluminum-alloy wheels, and a huge, roof-mounted rear spoiler. The interior and exterior carbon fiber trim would not reach production in this entry-level car but could, according to Alfonso Albaisa, director of design for Nissan Design America's San Diego studio, be offered as aftermarket parts through Nissan's NISMO performance-parts division. Nissan released no details on powertrains, but this would definitely be a front-wheel-drive car, and you can count on a four-cylinder engine.
At the 2004 Detroit auto show, Nissan unveiled the Actic, a small SUV/crossover concept that was designed at its San Diego studio. This past January, at the 2005 Detroit show, the company introduced the Azeal concept, a small, sporty coupe that was drawn at the new Detroit facility. Now we have the Sport Concept, which was designed at Nissan's studio in Tochigi, Japan. "The Nissan Sport Concept, like the Azeal and Actic before it, is first and foremost a showcase of future thinking, yet it is also a car that would be right at home in Nissan showrooms in the not-too-distant future," says Jack Collins, vice president of product planning for Nissan North America. Nissan confirms that it will be introducing not only an all-new Sentra, in fall 2006 (look for a 2006 Detroit auto show debut), but also "more than one" products that slot in below the Sentra, to compete with Toyota's successful Scion division. If the Sport Concept makes it to production--and we think it has the best chance of this trio--it likely will be offered as a four-door sedan and a four-door hatchback, not as a two-door hatch, which the company deems too impractical for American buyers. In production, the Sport Concept could end up being a cross between this concept and the next-generation Nissan Cube, the little square box from the Japan market that's similar to the Scion xB.
Nissan continues to maintain that it has no need for a separate youth division, like Scion, because it says that its buyers are, overall, much younger than Toyota's.