Chicago 2013: Nismos for All My Men!

CHICAGO -- There's Mercedes-Benz's AMG, BMW's M and Audi's Quattro. Then there's Toyota's TRD, Honda's Mugen and Nissan's Nismo. Nissan figures the Japanese brands haven't sufficiently exploited their own in-house tuner divisions, even though 13 percent of the 7338 370Zs it sold in the U.S. in 2012 were Nismo-equipped. With the Nismo Juke unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show and reviewed at automobilemag.com, Nissan begins its expansion of the tuner brand.

It won't be all horsepower and big numbers added to the sticker price, either. Nismo adds a modified nose, a diffuser, rear wing, a stiffened and lowered suspension and summer tires on 18-inch aluminum wheels, says Hiroshi Tamura, chief product specialist for the division. Nismo also has tuned for better performance feel, the CVT that's standard in the all-wheel-drive Juke. The Nismo Juke goes on sale in the United States in mid-March, and while Nissan isn't annoucing pricing yet, indications are it'll be less than $5,000 over the price of a standard Juke.

"The key word is 'accessible,'" says Carl Phillips, Nissan North America's chief marketing manager.

The plan calls for extending Nismo to appropriate North American models, so a Sentra, recalling the popular enthusiasts' SE-R of the 1990s is likely, while there won't be a Nismo Pathfinder. Beside the 350Z and then the 370Z, Nissan North America has marketed a Nismo Titan pickup in the past. Nissan will add hyper-modified models with more power, using the Nismo RS designation "in the near future," says spokesman Simon Sproule, and a GT-R Track Edition, limited to 150 units, goes on sale in May.

"We've have a lot of customers who said a Nismo Sentra would be exciting," Phillips says. "In every car (Nismo does), it needs to be good business sense."

Tamura divides Nismo customers into two groups; "high-life seekers" who want distinctive paint, bodywork and interior features, and "petrol-heads," who want improved handling and more power. Nissan established Nismo in 1984. In Japan and other markets, it has built versions of the Skyline GT-R, Sylvia (240SX) and Micra subcompact.

Why now in North America? "We're seeing renewed confidence in the industry," Phillips says. Management support from the top-down, from Japan to the U.S., is making his push for new models easier. If Nissan is succesful, look for Toyota to re-discover its TRD performance division, and Hyundai and Kia to launch similar tuner divisions. (North American rights to the Mugen division have been tied up with former Milwaukee-area dealer King Honda.) The new North American Nismo initiative also means Nissan can build profit margins, especially in smaller, cheaper models where the models traditionally are wafer-thin. Who would argue with the potential for better performance for customers making bigger profits for automakers?

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