In discussing possible ways Nissan could save itself, we briefly touched upon what made Nissan’s past products desirable: performance. Nissan has made some incredible high-performance vehicles, ranging from JDM forbidden-fruit to rally-conquering SUVs. But what set Nissan, and indeed, most Japanese carmakers, from brands like Porsche or Ferrari was how attainable their sporty vehicles were. Today, though, what sporty vehicles Nissan does make are long-in-the-tooth, as is most of Nissan’s US lineup. But affordable performance could still help Nissan make a comeback.
Nissan’s performance history
The history of motorsports includes quite a few famous Nissans. It started with the 510/Bluebird, as Donut Media explains, a small RWD sedan that’s still popular with racers and drifters. Then there was the Sentra SE-R, an affordable subcompact with full independent suspension and a limited-slip differential. The current Sentra is arguably less advanced.
More well-known in the US is the Z. The original 240Z was an import that was better than the original Ford Mustang. It spawned a succession of Z-badged sports cars, culminating in the current 370Z. Unfortunately, the 370Z is now over a decade old. And while some, like Throttle House and Car and Driver, do appreciate some of its old-school design, its sports-car rivals—the Mazda Miata, Subaru BRZ/Toyota GT86, Ford Mustang—have surpassed it.
Out of the box, the Nissan Patrol SUV wasn’t necessarily a performance vehicle. However, it was an incredibly tough off-roader. It was the first diesel to finish in the Top 10 at the 1981 Paris-Dakar. Nissan also gave the Patrol some fairly sophisticated features: the 4th-gen Patrol offered coil springs, for example, something only the Range Rover had back then.
But in the late 90s, the 5th-gen Patrol debuted, with an inline-6 strong enough to handle 1000+ hp. But the US never got that version. We got the Nissan Armada and Infiniti QX80, more luxurious versions that didn’t even get all the off-road tech.
But perhaps the most iconic performance Nissan is the GT-R.
Today, an AWD, twin-turbo, dual-clutch supercar developed at the Nurburgring doesn’t sound exotic. But in 2008, when the first US GT-R, the R35, debuted, it was practically unique. The original was an $80,000 car that could embarrass more expensive Ferraris and Porsches. It’s still fast today, but it’s fallen behind.
How performance can improve a brand
You might argue that investing in performance vehicles, especially now, doesn’t make sense for Nissan. And to be fair, even for a company like Mazda, more CX-5s are sold than Miatas. But performance vehicles can and do help out automakers.
For example, making it through the grueling Baja 1000 helped SCG sell its road-legal Baja Boot racer. The day after the race, SCG reported it had sold 50% of its 2020 capacity. And it’s not just high-end, expensive performance cars that can sell well.
Hyundai reported that its new Veloster N, the hot hatch that won Road & Track’s Performance Car of the Year, has boosted total Veloster sales by 43%. Cars like the Veloster N serve as “halo cars”, whose presence in the showroom draws the eye and makes the rest of the lineup seem better simply by association.
Performance also helps improve an automaker’s vehicles. Jaguar, for example, recently updated its I-Pace electric SUV. The software update added 12 miles to the SUV’s range, reported Car and Driver, from lessons gained in EV racing.
There are also homologation specials, like the Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution, which were literally built with racing technology so the manufacturers could go racing. Lancia was the first to put out an engine with both a supercharger and turbocharger specifically because of rally regulations. And your modern AWD crossover wouldn’t exist without the racing Audi Ur-Quattro.
And finally, performance can sometimes be an integral aspect of the brand. It’s why BMW calls itself “Ultimate Driving Machine.” And it’s why, Road and Track explained, Mazda spends so much time and energy keeping the Miata an affordable, fun, light-weight sports car. It’s not too much of a stretch to think of the Miata as Mazda’s heart.
In affordable performance, Nissan is being left behind
Japanese carmakers are beginning to re-inject their lineups with high-performance models. Honda brought back its NSX supercar, and Toyota has a Supra again. However, less well-heeled buyers can also find cars that offer inexpensive speed.
Road and Track reports that the upcoming (non-US) Toyota GR Yaris rally homologation special broke all of Toyota’s internal rules that govern product approval. But the CEO wanted an affordably-priced performance model, so the GR Yaris got his OK.
Honda’s Civic Type R, the first Type R sold in the US since the Integra, has been welcomed with extremely open arms. And The Drive reports that the Veloster N (along with other N-line cars) has been so well-received, Hyundai is considering making a proper N halo car to compete with the likes of Porsche.
Nissan had an opportunity to compete with its IDx concept a few years ago. This would have been a rear-wheel-drive sedan, a throwback to the 510/Bluebird. A RWD sports sedan would’ve meant not only a potential BMW competitor, it would have also been more practical than Mazda’s Miata, and the Subaru BRZ/Toyota GT86 sports cars. But Nissan didn’t build it.
Some may appreciate the 370Z’s old-school design, but it’s not translating to sales. Fewer than 3000 were sold last year. And while GT-R sales were never going to be high, Good Car Bad Car reports Nissan sold only 337 of them in 2019; in 2008, Nissan sold 1,730.
Want to really compete with the rest, Nissan? Make performance affordable.
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