DREW, Mississippi — Up and out the door before 6 a.m., our group of five leaves the rustic Mallard Manor cabin donned in waders, camouflage jackets, and shotguns, toting along enough ammunition to fill our daily limit of ducks and then some. Leaving behind the Nissan Titan pickups we had driven to the Manor the night before, we embark on Polaris side-by-sides, favoring the smaller footprint. Through the still-dark morning and cake-like Mississippi mud, we ride with as little light as possible. Our guide, Jared Busick, sets a dozen decoys out in the flooded farm field and positions us in the woods. We sit and wait for the hunt to begin.
Shotguns at the ready behind a homemade blind, our group anxiously awaits the command from Busick, who is frantically working his duck call. He blows on the call eliciting quack after quack in hopes of convincing the nearby ducks our spot is the best. We watch the ducks circle for several tantalizing minutes until we get a group committed to landing.
“Fire, fire now!” Busick whispers with a pleading look.
We rise and discharge our guns in near unison, filling the air with steel and a deafening sound.
“KA-BOOM! BOOM BOOM BOOM! BOOM! Boom. Boom.”
As the smoke clears, Busick’s lab, Toby, leaps into the water to retrieve the fruits of our efforts.
Nissan isn’t hosting us on this hunt in Mississippi without purpose. Just a few hours south in Canton, Mississippi, Nissan builds the Titan along with the Altima, NV Cargo, Frontier and Murano. The $3.2-billion factory plays a large role in helping the local economy and the state.
This trip we will be part of a field-to-table experience, with us hunting duck in the morning and cooking it in the afternoon. Field-to-table is a key message the hunting industry has been pushing as consumers become more aware of where their meat comes from and what chemicals are used to process it. It is a tall order making that connection with non-hunters and the ease of picking up meat, eggs, and dairy at the local supermarket. A similar disconnect also plagues Nissan and its American-made Titan.
During our two-hour drive back and forth to the nearest airport in Memphis, Tennessee, I count the number of Titans on the road that aren’t part of our group. Unfortunately for Nissan, the number barely fills one hand, and while the truck is still relatively new (the current version launched in 2016), there should be far more Titans on the road this close to its assembly plant.
If you travel to Michigan, you will see the highways filled with Chevy, GMC, Ford, and Ram trucks. Head down to San Antonio, Texas, home to the Toyota Tundra and Toyota Tacoma assembly plant, and you would swear Toyota trucks are the only ones on the market. They are everywhere.
Outside the manor, our Titans stand out in a parking lot filled with older Ford, Chevy, and Toyota pickups. The Titan, especially the XD, is taller and cuts a more imposing figure than the older trucks. Yet the parking lot and surrounding landscape is largely devoid of other Titan pickups.
The brand’s mix of vehicles represents Nissan’s largest challenge–convincing American consumers to recognize it as a truck brand. For years, Nissan focused on building economical cars with an occasional sports car thrown in for enthusiasts. Changing the culture from a car company into a truck company has been a rocky road. Nissan may be one of the largest automakers in the world, but its share of the North American truck market is tiny.
Part of that could be the chosen strategy. When it finally replaced the first-generation Titan, Nissan decided to re-launch the truck with a two-truck approach. Along with an all-new half-ton Titan, the automaker launched the new Titan XD work truck, confusing customers and stretching the roll-out period to a year-and-a-half.
Since its launch, the pickup has returned lackluster sales for a truck with six different cab configurations, two platforms, and two engine choices. Nissan’s publicly stated goal of catching the Toyota Tundra fell short by more than 50 percent last year and while sales are improving (up 141.9% last year), the Titan was outsold by even its woefully outdated Nissan Frontier sibling by 22k units.
Now surrounded by a fresh batch of competitors and an increasingly tough market, Nissan is trying to leverage the best warranty in the truck business (5 years/100,000 miles) and a new blacked-out Midnight Edition to lure customers. It is an interesting tactic in a market where dealerships offering cash on the hood and the latest in luxury features dominate.
Recognizing the growth of luxury trucks, Nissan launched the Titan XD Platinum Reserve, which borrows from Infiniti’s playbook. The exterior is bathed in chrome and the interior is filled with the best Nissan has to offer. While it is a step in the right direction, the Platinum Reserve is not quite as good as front-runners like Ford’s King Ranch or Ram’s Laramie Limited. Look for Nissan to continue pushing its own boundaries as it chases luxury-truck customers.
The Titan Midnight Edition is an example of following the leaders with the blacked-out badge look common in most automakers’ lineups. However, Nissan took it a step further and removed the bulky wheel-well covers and added a black headliner and pillars. The result is a very clean look on the outside and one of the darkest cabins on the market. Though the truck hasn’t been on the market that long, the trim should help attract younger customers looking to drive a unique pickup.
With a good first day resulting in several ducks, we are up early and out the door for day two. Unfortunately, the temperature has warmed and the wind has changed directions. The resulting conditions are not ideal for our hunting strategy and we get skunked. Returning to the manor, there is no joy in mudville.
This is another similarity with the Titan. The truck market is rapidly changing and Nissan is working hard to succeed in the new conditions and keep the upward momentum going. While nothing depended on us being successful duck hunters, many Mississippi jobs and Nissan careers depend on the Titan becoming successful at attracting truck buyers.