Detroit 2012: Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn on New Sentra and Altima, Electric Cars, Future Plans

Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn was born in Brazil and educated in Paris, yet has no problem dispatching quick-fire and sometimes sarcastic remarks in English to a panel of journalists at the Detroit auto show. He paces while giving lengthy answers, frowns as he takes questions from reporters, and occasionally even laughing when journalists pose questions that Ghosn doesn’t seem impressed with.

On Crises in 2011 and New Products for 2012

“2011 has not been a bad year for Nissan,” Ghosn said. “In fact, we have grown market share everywhere.” That’s in spite of production slowdowns resulting from natural disasters in both Japan and Thailand, as well as economic uncertainties around the world. Ghosn says that Nissan escaped all these crises relatively unscathed — at least compared to Japanese rivals Honda and Toyota — in part because his company is quick to adapt to challenges.

“People will stand up and very quickly and face problems, no matter how unpleasant they are,” he said.

Ghosn said he thinks Nissan will have another strong year in 2012, and in doing so let slip that the company is working on a new version of the Sentra. He said that this year’s success will be driven by the launch of strong new products including the 2013 Pathfinder, 2013 Altima, and new Sentra.

“It will be a rich year in terms of product,” Ghosn said.

Future Products

Ghosn believes the 2013 Altima, scheduled to go on sale by the middle of this year, “should be a very strong contender.” Though he won’t outwardly admit that Nissan wants to outsell the Toyota Camry, he says he hopes the new Altima will be successful enough to sell even higher volumes than the current model — which would likely make the car the nation’s best-selling car. In 2011, the Toyota Camry recorded 308,510 sales, while the Nissan Altima managed 268,981 sales.

The 2013 Altima will continue to offer a hybrid drivetrain, but Ghosn says it won’t be a major part of the car’s sales volume.

He also gave us an early scoop by revealing that Nissan will soon announce additional production capacity in Mexico — which will, in part, provide more capacity for building the next Altima. Ghosn couldn’t say where or how much assembly capacity would be added, as the measure has not yet been approved by the Nissan board. But he says we can expect to hear more “in a matter of weeks.”

Ghosn reiterated that Nissan is still working on a new version of the Titan pickup truck — and it will be built and designed in-house, not purchased or sourced from another automaker. Selling a full-size truck is part of Nissan’s product offensive as the company works to achieve ten percent American market share.

“What you have to understand,” Ghosn says, “Is that we are going to be present in every single segment of the market in the U.S.”

The Chevrolet Volt Is Not an Electric Car

Though reporters tried to push Ghosn to talk about the Nissan Leaf in comparison to other automakers’ green cars, the executive wouldn’t be drawn on General Motors’ famous Volt. So instead, he poked fun at it.

“I can’t talk about the [Chevrolet] Volt,” Ghosn said. “Frankly… I don’t consider that this is an electric car. I think it’s a hybrid.”

Ghosn was, however, happy to talk about the Leaf, which sold about 20,000 examples around the world last year. He would have liked to see the electric hatchback hit higher sales figures, but volume was limited by slow production of battery packs. That will be at least partially remedied this year as additional construction of the Leaf begins at Nissan’s plant in Tennessee. In 2012, Ghosn wants global deliveries of the Leaf to double to about 40,000 units. So far, about 80 percent of Leaf sales are conquests — that is, 80 percent of Leafs are purchased by customers who didn’t previously own a Nissan.

Battery Range — It’s All Relative

Ghosn insists that Nissan is honest with customers regarding electric-car ranges and regular car fuel economy figures. After all, he says that Nissan can only publish efficiency numbers as defined by specific government tests. As an example, he explains why Nissan will only say that 2013 Pathfinder fuel economy is 25 percent better than in the current model.

“I am not allowed to tell you today what is the miles per gallon of the Pathfinder,” Ghosn said. “I’m waiting for the EPA to tell me what I can say.”

At the same time, Ghosn says customers need to be aware that driving ranges and fuel efficiency vary from driver to driver. To put this into perspective, he relates the story of enlisting four engineers to find the absolute lowest battery range possible from a Nissan Leaf prototype. The four engineers drove the Leaf up Japan’s Mount Fuji, at full throttle, in freezing-cold weather with the heater on full. According to Ghosn, the engineers still managed to drive 50 miles before the Leaf’s batteries were exhausted. Why do we get the feeling this is an apocryphal tale?

Mixed Outlook for 2012

Renault-Nissan expects overall car sales to grow in the U.S. next year, but believes European car sales will contract three percent in 2012 compared to 2011. As such, the company expects to report poor results for the first half of the new year, with “moderate” financial results in the third and fourth quarters. Still, Ghosn is overall optimistic for sales in Europe.

“I don’t believe in Armageddon happening in Europe,” he said.

For more on the 2012 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, including videos, the latest photos, and more information, click here to visit our Detroit Show homepage.

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