How Sentra Became Nissan’s Secret Weapon in America


The midsize sedan is still king in the U.S. in 2014 with four of the top 10 spots sealed up on the sales charts. As gas prices remain low, automakers will likely see this trend continue, but the compact Nissan Sentra has been shooting up the leaderboard by attempting to defy the limitations of its class. In fact, Sentra has been the secret weapon for Nissan as the brand looks to increase its market share in the region and overtake Honda as the fourth biggest seller in the U.S. Nissan’s strategy of focusing on its compact car is already working less than one year later.

Production hubs informing company goals

The production of any new vehicle involves questions about where factories are located in relation to the target market. In the case of the redesigned Sentra that debuted in 2013, Nissan hoped to use the compact car as a tool to increase market share in the U.S., where consumers have shifted to a taste for more efficient small cars. That corresponds to the demand around the globe, where compact cars surpass every other vehicle type on the sales charts. Yet Nissan needed a product to deliver.

The automaker began by investing $2 billion in an Aguascalientes, Mexico, plant to build the new Sentra. According to Automotive Newscompany officials cited problems keeping North American dealerships stocked as one of the obstacles in growing brand market share in the world’s second largest auto market. Expanding capacity and inventory in North America was the goal that was achieved by opening the Mexico plant in 2013. But that goal was empty without the product to back up the ambition.

2014 Sentra (640x360)
Source: Nissan USA

The Toyota Corolla and Ford Focus lead the world in auto sales, but in the U.S. the Corolla and Honda Civic are the only two compacts with a firm toehold in the top 10. Other top sellers include the Chevy Cruze (11th) and Hyundai Elantra (16th). In essence, Nissan’s big gamble was putting its money on the Sentra and believing its new compact car would beat these four competitors so it could gain market share. Besides hoping to grow from 8% to 10% of the U.S. market, Nissan had designs on displacing Honda, currently ranked fourth among top U.S. brands.

Bigger, more efficient, less expensive

With the capacity to challenge rival compact cars in the U.S., Nissan’s final obstacle was winning over consumers who long ago decided Corolla, Civic, and Elantra were the choices to beat. Engineers managed to deliver a product that was larger inside (111 cubic feet, also more than the Mercedes E-Class), more fuel efficient (34 miles per gallon combined), and less expensive ($15,990) than the rival imports. The automaker also kept the MSRP below Focus and Cruze.

This combination of sterling features and lower entry price made its mark on U.S. consumers. Through the first 10 months of 2014, Sentra sales are up 45% over the same period in 2013, which is by far the largest gain among the top 20 vehicles. (Corolla is up 10%, Civic is down 1%, and Elantra is down 10% in 2014.) The jump in interior space and the continuous variable transmission (CVT) option in the new Sentra were two of the changes Nissan nailed when it came to the compact segment. Quality standards may have never been higher for the brand.

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Scott Olson/Getty Images

Nissan brought production of its new Murano crossover in a similar effort to move the vehicle to its target market. Automotive News detailed the rigorous quality testing underway at the plant where Nissan is building the Murano in Canton, Mississippi. Between changes made from an early J.D. Power inspection to the instant adjustments engineers are ordered to make at the plant, Nissan is staking a great deal on its “image car,” saying it “wanted to make sure this launch was flawless.”

If it succeeds, Nissan plans to take away consumers who would otherwise shop for luxury vehicles by BMW and Lexus. The figures from October 2014 show how well the company strategy has worked thus far. Nissan notched its 13th consecutive sales record for the month, growing 13% over October 2013. Models from the Leaf electric vehicle (up 29% in a record month) to the Rogue crossover (up 14%) and Versa subcompact (up 29%) are vaulting the brand to higher standing than ever in the U.S.

No matter how impressive those gains seem, none was higher than the Sentra, which gained 53% over its sales from a year earlier. Nissan now has Honda well within its sights as the automaker steamrolls up the sales charts. Sentra has proven to be the secret weapon in a segment where the stakes were never higher.