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Nissan faces uphill drive with new sports car

Nissan's new GT-R sports car might be faster than a Porsche 911 turbo, according to the Internet buzz. But to sell it in America, Nissan will have to do a better job of explaining to consumers what the automakers stands for.
New Car Models Debut At Los Angeles Auto Show
Nissan's GT-R "supercar" made its North American debut this week at  the Los Angeles Auto Show. The $70,000 car will go on sale next summer.David Mcnew / Getty Images

In this age of Internet chat room “discussions” hypothetical debates abound. One that has surfaced lately asks whether the Nissan GT-R — the supercar introduced to Americans at this week’s Los Angeles Auto Show — can circulate the Nurburgring racetrack in Germany faster than a Porsche 911 Turbo.

For car enthusiasts, it’s a question worth debating. The GT-R made its first public appearance this fall at the Tokyo motor show, and buzz has heralded its North American debut this week in Los Angeles, including rumors of remarkable track speeds.

While the question of whether a Nissan is faster than a Porsche will be settled as soon as a car magazine gets hold of a GT-R to do with as it pleases, a bigger question remains: Will supercar customers in America write $70,000 checks to a mainstream, high-volume Japanese manufacturer when the GT-R goes on sale here next summer?

At the heart of the issue is whether the Nissan brand holds any clear meaning for consumers. The company insists that its credible history in sports car racing has established its bona fides as a carmaker for “gearheads,” and Bill Bosley, vice president of Nissan North America, asserts that the automaker is “viewed as a company that has performance as it heritage.” Maybe, but that racing success was always in racing series that were under the radar of most sports fans.

Nissan makes an equally authentic claim that it’s the new force in safety technology, on a par with Volvo. Don’t laugh: Nissan really does have impressive new technologies and a commendable goal to eliminate traffic fatalities in its vehicles. But as much as Nissan is accomplishing here, few consumers — maybe none — would equate Nissan with safety the way they do with Volvo.

Go off-roading with Nissan’s truck experts, and you’ll quickly find that the company’s trucks and SUVs not only have Land Rover-like capability, they also have some actual Land Rover technology used under license. These machines can slog through the nastiest, slipperiest, steepest conditions drivers are ever likely to find, but who imagines the next Discovery Channel documentary on the wildebeest will be shot from the window of a Nissan Frontier instead of Land Rover Defender?

To sell the GT-R in America, someone is going to have to explain to consumers what Nissan stands for. Wanting to be Toyota is not the bedrock on which a company can be built. After trying that approach, Subaru decided to become the outdoorsy all-wheel-drive company and Mazda decided to become the sports car company. Whither Nissan? Whatever the answer, consumers will need to be convinced.

“Everybody thought they would put [the GT-R] in the Infiniti showroom because that is the kind of customer who can pony up the $70,000,” observed Joe Phillipi, president of AutoTrends Consulting, who tracks the automotive industry. “These buyers are going to demand a lot of special treatment.”

When people reach the point that they can afford a dream car, few of them want onlookers to conclude that they have only almost made it big and had to settle for a cheap Asian knockoff. And in addition to the European image, there is the matter of properly deferential treatment by the dealers’ sales and service staffs.

Once, while traveling out of town in a $120,000 V-12 BMW test car whose transmission became schizophrenic on a holiday weekend, the dealer I limped in to offered to give me the new one like it on his lot as a make-good. That’s service. And it is the kind of treatment Porsche 911, Audi R8, Lamborghini Gallardo, Aston Martin Vantage and Ferrari F430 customers expect.

Not to worry, says Nissan. People buy $90,000 Vipers and $75,000 Corvettes in dingy Dodge and crummy Chevy showrooms every day. At $70,000 the 473-horsepower GT-R represents such a performance bargain customers will overlook the differences between a Nissan dealer and a Porsche showroom, contends Bosley.

Maybe, but here’s the thing — the Italian marble-floored waiting room in the service area and deferential treatment by the dealer are part of the package these customers are buying. Without those trimmings, they aren’t getting the full fantasy experience they paid for. Charities don’t auction dates with celebrity impersonators, they auction dates with celebrities. Customers want to be somebody important, even if they are only important to their car dealer.

And sure, Corvette and Viper owners deal with these very issues. But those guys are a different psychographic than the import supercar drivers. Many buyers of domestic sports cars were blue collar at some point in time. Maybe now they own the landscaping business rather than planting trees themselves, but they still identify with the blue collar employees at the Chevy and Dodge dealers.

A guy on the way to buy a Gallardo isn’t going to be impressed with the 50 Nissan Versa economy cars lined up in front of the dealer when he stops to check out the GT-R, and he’s not going to identify with the dealer’s staff.

While the company hasn’t finalized the plans, Nissan will sell GT-Rs only though those dealers who decide to meet the strict requirements for supporting the car properly, reports Bosley.

“We want this customer to have a special experience when they come in,” he said, as the goal is for top managers to greet and work with GT-R customers. “We want to make sure we have very experienced people in the dealership dealing with these people.”

The company should go further, insisting that only genuine sports car nuts and expert drivers sell the GT-R, said Phillipi, suggesting Nissan makes sure everybody working the floor spends one or two days in the Skip Barber (racing) school.

Initially, at least, the car’s specifications will sell all of the GT-Rs Nissan can build. The company can build as many as 1,000 each month, but the global demand for an all-wheel-drive twin-turbo 473 horsepower supercar for about $70,000 will surely exceed supply initially.

But to sustain sales Nissan will need to win over its Porsche-driving target customers. The German car giant tells enthusiasts that there is no substitute, and BMW claims to be the Ultimate Driving Machine. Nissan will need to not only decide what Nissan ownership means, but also convince consumers to buy into that philosophy, or the GT-R risks following the Subaru SVX, Acura NSX, Toyota Supra twin-turbo and Mazda RX-7 twin-turbo into history as expensive Japanese supercars with too little heritage to drive sales among image-conscious customers who can afford the authentic old-world article.