Ghosn to auto industry: Start building cars people want to buy
It feels like years since Carlos Ghosn first burst onto the automaking scene, preaching about the power of quality cars, cars that people can get excited about driving. Back then, in 1999, Nissan was on the verge of disappearing in the U.S., a fading brand that sold forgettable cars. But that was before Ghosn, who – along with his team – strapped the automaker onto his back and scaled the mountain, reworking Nissan’s image and infusing the brand with cars that yes – people really did want to buy. In between hits such as the Altima and the 350Z came some misses, of course – the Quest comes to mind, along with a semi-deserved reputation for poor quality. Yet as Ghosn stood looking over the assembled press and automaker executives at the New York International Auto Show, it’s a safe bet that he wasn’t thinking about the Quest and its center pillar console, or the latest Consumer Reports study – though perhaps he should have been. Shoot – who knows what the man was thinking. What Ghosn said, however, was eerily similar to what he has spoken of for years – namely, the Power of Product, and the passion it can create in the hearts of car buyers. You could hear the thoughts in the crowd: there’s Ghosn, going on again about product. It was enough to make the eyeballs of a mid-level Toyota manager glaze over. Of course, it’s easy to talk up exciting cars when you’re about to announce that the GT-R will be sold worldwide under the Nissan name, and introduce a new, larger Altima. But Ghosn also said something else, something altogether different than the last 35 stump speeches given by the Brazilian whiz-kid: he started talking about value, and how the term has become synonymous with economy, and how that’s killing the auto industry. “Value is more than an economy term,” said Ghosn. “And the consistent sales in the last five years have come at the cost of consumer’s value perception.” Ghosn went on to harangue the industry for its overuse of incentives, claiming that the $3,500 or so spent on incentives last year has created an image that takes away from the image of car brands, and destroys value. He called out “bland, safe, cookie-cutter designs,” and “price-dominated advertising,” as killers of interest, claiming that such cars do not create demand and passion about a car or a brand. “It doesn’t have to be this way,” said Ghosn, and you could see hordes of executives moving closer to the speaker, ready for the close. “People can and should love their cars, if we only meet them halfway.” Silent sniffling coursed through the crowd. It could happen, he insisted, as long as automakers build good products and offer good service; as long as the industry increases the speed with which it brings new cars to market, and as long as automakers are willing to take risks – within the confines of profitability – to build exciting cars, and as long as automakers focus innovation on value, on items that directly ease or improve the quality of a person’s life. If automakers do this, and if – most importantly, they remember that today, everything is on the customer’s term – the future is as bright as Nissan Titan headlights in your rearview mirror.
On Renault coming to America: No. On GM, Ford struggles: I don’t think anyone on the outside can give good advice; it’s very difficult to understand what’s going on unless you’re on the inside. The solution comes from the people inside the companies, but they can benchmark other automakers that have faced similar challenges. On Nissan’s move to Nashville: There are more opportunities in Nashville, and while there are shortcomings to the move in the short term, in the long term there are significant benefits. Global warming, oil dependency: We need to diversify our efforts. Hybrid is one option, but it is not THE option; bio-fuels, such as ethanol, also pose some strong advantages. All automakers are working on fuel cells, so don’t discount hydrogen as a long term solution. Nissan quality: Warranty claims are down 80 percent; most of the trouble has come from Nissan’s new plant in Canton, Miss.
Photos by Ron Perry