It's new-car preview season, which means the lights have pretty much been out at 120 East Liberty while we travel the globe, building up those frequent flyer miles. If it's Tuesday, this must be Alaska and Toyota. If it's Monday, I think we're doing San Francisco with Nissan. Yes, that's right. Forgive me if I've become a little confused. Where's the press kit?
The invitation from Nissan was simply
SHIFT_the way we move
San Francisco USA June 2004
There was also a block of names packed around that main message: Micra Quest March Cube Skyline Altima Primera Maxima Patrol Titan Frontier Teana Stagea Pathfinder Kubistar Platina Armada Elgrand Kubistar Platina Armada Elgrand X-TRAIL Sylphy FX Presage QX56 Interstar Tsuru Primastar G35 Z
In all, nearly seventy Nissan and Infiniti models from around the world would be shipped to San Francisco and prepped for the world's automotive press to drive. Over the course of eighteen days, some 500 journalists from thirty countries would descend upon nearby Sausalito to see how far Nissan had gotten itself in its seventy-one years, or, more important, how far it had come in the five short years since Renault had rescued it from sailing off the edge of the earth.
Typically, no other information comes with an invitation. You arrive, you check in, and sometimes the "press kit" is waiting in your hotel room. If you're industrious, you read it before going to sleep, totally prepared for the next day's technical presentation and test drive. If you're me, you throw it into your suitcase, take notes at the morning's tech talk, and let the test drive reveal the truth of the matter.
There was no press material in my room. I went to bed, wondering if the 360 would look at all different from the 350Z or if it perhaps just got an extra jolt of horsepower. It would also be cool to drive a few of the weirder Nissans we don't get in the States.
There was also no formal tech presentation scheduled for the morning, highly irregular for a Japanese car company. (Toyota engineers, for instance, recently spoke tech on the upcoming Tacoma pickup for two hours straight without taking a breath.) I figured
that I'd find the 360, jump in, take a spin, and get the specifics later. But I was getting a little nervous.
It's not smart for a journalist to arrive for one of these international extravaganzas for the very last wave, long after the rowdy French and the humorless, hard-charging German press have fouled the driving route. Not just local cops but county sheriff deputies, California Highway Patrol, park rangers, and I suppose off-duty security guards had virtually lined the various test-drive routes shoulder to shoulder and were writing tickets on every Nissan and Infiniti they could flag down. Who knows how many innocent tourists driving freshly washed Altimas were pulled over in the sweep?
How fast can you drive a Nissan Cube Cubic, anyway? That was the only cool-looking car left in the lot after the Mexicans and the Canadians with whom I was sharing the moment had rushed the test fleet, snapped up everything remotely interesting, including, I assumed, however many 360s Nissan had brought along, and left in a huff. How fast can you drive a Cube Cubic, I repeat? Not fast, I tell you. Yes, its asymmetrical body creases and left-side-only wraparound rear window look cool. But fast she ain't. My driving partner and I puttered past the police.
What a stupid name, but then, it's coming from a country that has a children's psycho fuzzball hero named Dipsy Laa-Laa Tinky Winky Po. We began to rap.
Dingo Dongy, I said.
KooKoo Krazy, said he.
Jimbo Jumby. Jorby Jingo. Binko Bonky. Hoobo Stanky Wanky.
(Wait! Dipsy, Laa-Laa, Tinky Winky, and Po can't be blamed on Japan-they're British! But still.)
There was a big rumor that the Cube was coming to America, but all the cagey (and well-practiced by the time they heard these questions for the umpteenth time in every language spoken on the planet) executives would say was, "Yes, the Cube is going global. It's not decided for the U.S., but it's coming to Canada and Mexico about two years out when the next generation is launched." Pump some juice into it and bring it on, we say.
Despite their weird names (Sylphy? Stagea? Teana 350JM?), most of these cars were exactly nothing special. Nissan design has come a long way, yes, and the big maxivans were bizarre, yes. But I had come to drive the Nissan 360. Where was it?
In front of me was the friendly, design-award-winning Micra, vaguely reminiscent of the wildly popular, limited-edition 1991 Figaro. The Micra is as close to Mickey Mouse's family sedan as a car can be and is trimmed inside like a 1950s radio. Fakelite Bakelite trim pieces and knobs are the perfect complement to the bold instruments. The engine is a super-torquey 1.5-liter turbo-diesel four that scoots. The Micra has become Europe's best-selling Nissan, and it was easy to imagine them in America.
"The next-generation Micra has been developed for global application," admitted Jack Collins, Nissan product planning VP. "This is the third generation, and it's about mid-cycle now."
"Would that new one be about two or three years out?" I asked.
"You can use your own name for that quote," Collins answered.
I jumped from the Micra to the Moco. Uh-oh. The Mexicans were having their pictures taken in front of the Moco. They were laughing and mugging for the camera. Something was up.
"What does moco mean in Spanish?" I guessed at the joke, correctly.
"You don't want to know," said one of them as the others laughed.
"Oh, but I do," insisted the eight-year-old boy in me.
"It's the stuff that comes out of your nose," he said.
"Snot?" I asked.
"Spelled the same?"
"Wow," said I. "You haven't had a good one like this since the Chevy Nova." (No va means "doesn't go.")
I left them laughing, but I was not laughing when I still couldn't find a 360 to drive.
It was lunchtime, and I took the moment to leaf through the press material. Here was a list of all the cars and the countries in which each is sold. There was no 360. I was feeling uncomfortable. I read further. "I hope you will enjoy your 360 experience and that it provides you with a fresh look at Nissan as a truly global, truly bold, truly thoughtful company."
Well. It wasn't very thoughtful to trick me like that, was it? There was no 360. It was 360 degrees of Nissan. I had flown to San Fran-cisco, I spent a day driving cars we may or may not see in the United States two or three years from now (according to me), and I flew home the next day. My notes reveal the following:
* In 1999, Nissan had twenty-four platforms worldwide. For 2005, that has been reduced to fifteen, with the top five accounting for 91 percent of total volume.
* The next-generation M45 will be built on the Z platform, which is also the base of the FX sport-ute and the G35 sedan.
* The Murano's CVT manages 240 pound-feet of torque, the highest such application in the world.
* The 2007 Altima will enter the United States with a fuel-cell option in late 2006.
* In Japan, Nissan cars with intelligent brake assist and a feature called "inching" have been approved for sale. This feature slows the car when approaching another (say, in a traffic jam), then automatically creeps the car forward. It drives itself in rush hour. It's "probably" coming to the States.
* The 2006 hybrid Altima uses Toyota parts tuned by Nissan for performance. "We don't believe we can sell this technology on mileage. It must be performance," said Collins. "The industry trend is toward power." The Altima, Nissan's highest-volume vehicle in the United States, needs that hybrid option to meet increasingly difficult CARB standards.
There may have been no 360 to drive, but if you go to automobilemag.com, you can find out as much as I found out about the cars I did drive.