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GM, Renault, Nissan in Possible Tie-up

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The buzz around the global auto industry on Friday June 30 was that a possible tie-up between General Motors, Renault and Nissan was being seriously discussed by GM’s board. A meeting held on June 20 in Nashville (Nissan North America’s new headquarters) between Kirk Kerkorian, Jerry York and Carlos Ghosn explored possible relationships. Kerkorian’s Tracinda Corp. owns 9.9% of General Motors – the 4th largest shareholder – and Jerry York, Kerkorian’s right hand man, is Tracinda’s representative on GM’s Board. Carlos Ghosn is chairman of Renault and chairman of Nissan. Could he also become chairman of General Motors and then rule the auto world with 25% of the global market?
GM’s Board had a urgently called telephone conference on Friday to discuss the issue. No news yet.
General Motors Share Price Skyrockets
GM’s share price rocketed 8.6% on Friday on the news and skeptics opined that Kerkorian had orchestrated the news to win back the losses his investment in GM has taken over the past year. Others saw this as another wake-up call to Rick Wagoner that the restructuring of General Motors is not moving fast enough and that someone like Carlos Ghosn is needed to impersonally and analytically cut through the inertia that faces the General. Admittedly, Rick Wagoner has one of the toughest jobs on the planet and steering GM is like steering the Titanic. It cannot change direction quickly. But Ghosn demonstrated that you can turn around a huge ship – Japan’s second largest carmaker Nissan returned to profitability two years following Ghosn taking the helm.
Personalities, Personalities, Personalities
Think about the personalities. Wagoner the low-key professional chairman trying to improve the General incrementally. Bob Lutz the charismatic product czar of GM whose impact is just beginning to be seen in newly introduced products. Jerry York the impatient financial wizard from Chrysler/IBM/Tracinda who is delving into GM’s operations. Kerkorian the “long term investor” trying to make a risky investment a sure thing. Carlos Ghosn another charismatic exec credited singlehandedly with saving Nissan. Wow! This is fun!
Don’t Forget China
Oh, don’t forget. GM has a solid presence in China and Renault and Nissan much less so. This tie up could really benefit Renault and Nissan in China.
Stay Tuned
Stay tuned. This will play out quickly over the next week or so. Is Kerkorian just playing with his share price? Is he really able to goose GM into accelerating its restructuring? Will any sort of relationship develop between GM/Renault/Nissan? Between Wagoner/Lutz/Kerkorian/York/Ghosn?


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AutoPacific's 2006 Ideal Vehicle Awards Announced

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An “ideal” is defined as an excellent or perfect example. In the first Ideal Vehicle Awards, announced today by automotive research and consulting firm AutoPacific, owners rate their new 2006 model year cars and trucks by how closely they come to their ideal. The cars or trucks that owners would change the least are the most ideal.
Those carmakers that best understand their customers and create the vehicle their core buyer group desires has come closest to the ideal.
The top-rated vehicle and top-rated car is the Mercury Montego in the Large Car/Luxury Car category. In fact, Ford Motor Company sweeps the first three positions overall with the Ford Crown Victoria and Ford Five Hundred in second and third place. The top-rated truck is the Honda Odyssey Minivan.
The top-rated brand overall is Hyundai out-pointing Mercury and Lincoln for the most ideal vehicle honors.
Ford Motor Company and American Honda have three segment winners apiece. BMW and Hyundai have two each.
Of the sixteen Ideal Vehicle Award (IVA) categories, Japanese brands have seven segment winners, American brands have four, European brands have three and Korean brands have two winners.
The top-rated product segment is Large Car/Luxury Car confirming that Americans continue to value large, comfortable cars suitable for suburban and highway cruising.
Top-rated 2006 Ideal Vehicle brand: Hyundai
Top-rated 2006 Ideal Product Segment: Large Car/Luxury Car
Top rated 2006 Ideal Vehicles by segment:
PASSENGER CARS:
Premium Luxury Car: Lexus LS
Entry Luxury Car: BMW 3-Series
Large Car/Luxury Car: Mercury Montego
Premium Mid-Size Car: Hyundai Sonata
Mid-Size Car: Mercury Milan
Image Compact Car: Toyota Prius
Compact Car: Ford Focus
Sports Car: Porsche 911
Sporty Car: Acura RSX
SUT, SUV, and MINIVAN:
Sport Utility Truck: Honda Ridgeline
Luxury Sport Utility: BMW X5
Large Sport Utility: GMC Yukon
Premium Mid-Size Sport Utility: Nissan Murano
Mid-Size Sport Utility: Hyundai Santa Fe
Compact Sport Utility: Subaru Forester
Minivan: Honda Odyssey
In addition to identifying segment winners, IVA also establishes numerical ideal vehicle ratings for virtually every passenger car and light truck (except pickups) in the United States market. This results from calculating owner input across 11 specific areas related to a vehicle’s exterior size, passenger roominess, cargo space, driver’s seat comfort, drivers seat visibility, interior technology, power, ease of getting in and out, interior storage compartments and tires and wheels. The 2006 ratings reflect input from buyers and lessees of new vehicles acquired September 2005 through January 2006. Pickup trucks are not incorporated because of numerous body styles included within each pickup line.


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Nissan Titan Wins AutoPacific 2006 Vehicle Satisfaction Award for Large Pickups

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Owners of the 2006 Nissan Titan rate the pickup at the top of the Large Pickup category. The 2006 model year is the third year in a row Titan has topped its segment in the AutoPacific Vehicle Satisfaction Awards. This is an outstanding accomplishment and testament to the satisfaction Titan is giving its owners.
Titan’s achievement is truly remarkable and demonstrates the inherent differences in AutoPacific’s way of measuring satisfaction compared with others. Titan is immensely satisfying, but owner surveys conducted by others show Titan has a fair share of niggling problems. But, if you are not counting things gone wrong and looking at what really matters – how well buyers are satisfied – Titan shines. Its big, powerful V8 engine combined with outstanding styling and features provide the top-satisfying product package for 2006.
We cannot ignore that two large trucks produced at Nissan’s Canton Mississippi assembly plant won top place in their categories for both the 2004, 2005 and 2006 – Nissan Titan and Nissan Armada. This is a sweep any company can be envious of.


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2007 Nissan Quest: Do the Interior Improvements Make the Grade?

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With the 2007 model year, Nissan offers an improved Quest, introducing the model at the Chicago auto show. At the time, we posted a blog that detailed the changes, but now we’ve had the chance to drive it for ourselves and can report back on the results of Nissan’s most extensive mid-cycle change ever. Along with the Versa, AutoPacific and VehicleVoice correspondents had the chance to get behind the wheel of the Quest this week. While I drove the Versa to the Jack Daniel’s Distillery, I drove a Quest 3.5 SL back.
But First, the Counterpoint
How many times have we researched minivans and people who don’t drive them say they are for soccer moms to schlep their kids from activity to activity? How many times have SUV drivers, clearly with a family profile suited to a minivan, refused to consider a minivan because of their image? How many times have men been embarrassed to really like driving a minivan? These reactions happen just about every time we talk to USA consumers about minivans.
After driving the Quest from Nashville to Lynchburg, I came away with a renewed appreciation for how great a minivan really is. Easy to get into and out of. Great visibility. Flexible interior. The Quest is very pleasant to drive and the major interior upgrade for 2007 should help Quest achieve better sales performance against Honda and Toyota competition.
If it wasn’t a minivan, I could see a Quest in my driveway. It has all the attributes I am looking for in a vehicle… but it’s a minivan. Lots of people feel that way. What will it take to change their brains?–G. Peterson

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Improvements Bring Quest Nearer the Target
There is no doubt that the Quest improvements are significant and will result in a happier ownership experience and, hopefully, loyal and repeat buyers. What these changes do not do, however, is to bring the Quest to the head of the minivan pack. Improved as it is, Toyota and Honda are still the segment leaders, with Chrysler’s minivan products still the total segment leader in sales if not image. Quest offers a better, nicer package than the minivans from General Motors or Ford, but that was largely true before this update.


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Nissan Versa – an Engaging Small Entry

Nissan Versa will be the third of the new B-Segment subcompact cars introduced in the USA by major Japanese manufacturers for the 2007 model year. The first was the Toyota Yaris, followed by the Honda Fit and the Versa hatchback in summer and sedan in fall 2006.

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Intrepid Journalists get download on Versa from Nissan’s Senior Manager Orth Hedrick

AutoPacific had the chance to drive the Versa near Nissan’s new Nashville, Tennessee, headquarters. As many manufacturers have done, the drive route took us from downtown Nashville to the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg. Nice drive. Great roads. Since Lynchburg is a dry county, there were no samples and everyone had to drive back stone cold sober. But that did not dampen the reaction to the car.
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Versa is powered by a 122HP four-cylinder engine from Nissan’s new MR family. The sample we were driving was teamed with a CVT – continuously variable transmission rather than the six-speed manual found on the base vehicle (a four-speed automatic also will be temporarily available until CVT capacity catches up with demand. Then CVT will be the only “automatic” choice.)
The Versa is big for a B-Class car. Nissan describes it as a “B-Plus.” It has a spacious interior with 60/40 fold down rear seat. Unfortunately, the Versa does not have a passenger side folding seat back that would improve the function of its otherwise well-thought-out interior.
Driving impressions were positive. The Versa rides very well over the smooth roads outside Nashville but crashes around a bit when encoutering the inevitable potholes surrounding new construction. Ride control is good through the twisties. Cruising, the Versa is superb, but seems to be let down by underachieving tires when pushed hard through a corner.
We’d Like More Punch, but for what Versa is Supposed to be, Versa is Stellar
On the “Small Car Scale” – whatever that is – the new Versa likely is a seven or eight out of ten. We’d like more power and that should come in the future possibly with an SE-R model. We’d like more aggressive tires. Probably on an SE-R. But for an around-town runabout used for commuting and errands, Versa is stellar.
Versa’s price has not yet been set, but the range should be between $12,000 and $16,000.
The question inside Nissan is going to be, “How much volume will Versa take from the more expensive only slightly larger Sentra?”
Counterpoint: 6MT Driven
For the most part, I agree with my fearless leader’s comments, though I drove a Versa equipped with the manual transmission. While wind noise was at a minimum, there seemed to be quite a bit of tire noise. And though Versa offers lots of headroom, legroom, and cargo space, it is a bit on the narrow side. The driver and front passenger seats basically touch the doors, requiring Nissan to put the manual seat adjustment pulls on the inside edge of the seat. The seats, revised from those found in Maxima, were very comfortable and the design in the cloth seats is attractive. There are lots of soft-touch materials where drivers and passengers will notice, though padding on the door armrest feels squishy. Couldn’t it be more firm and still be covered in a material pleasant to touch? The center console armrest is soft-touch as well, but not as squishy as the door armrest.
I was not impressed by the six-speed manual, which was the only drivetrain I got stick time in today. There is a satisfying feel when it settles into gear, but shifting was a bit vague and getting to the desired gear, particularly on downshift, was not as instinctive as some. On the other hand, the manual does offer short throws and avoids the rubberband feeling one could count on from entry-level cars not too long ago. The new small entry should fare well in today’s automotive landscape at the prices they are targeting.—S. Brinley


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Nissan Maxima Updated for 2007

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Announced Alongside All New 2007 Altima
Introduced at the 2006 New York auto show barely ahead of early summer 2006 sales was an update for the Nissan Maxima. The information on the update for the Maxima could be lost amid the much bigger news of the all new Nissan Altima premium mid-size car also introduced at New York. VehicleVoice and AutoPacific correspondents were among the first to get a look at the updated car in New York.

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With the new Altima shrinking in size a bit (on sale a couple of months after the Maxima), Nissan dealers may have an easier time separating the two products. Of course, the 2007 Altima launches with more horsepower (265HP plus) from an all-new version of Nissan’s VQ 3.5L V6, while Maxima continues with the current 255HP version.
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Nissan Altima All New for 2007

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Nissan Mid-Size Sedan All New for 2007
Whenever a high volume mid-size sedan is introduced it is, by definition, big news. These high volume sedans are the mainstream movers of the auto market. The king of the hill is the Toyota Camry, new for the 2007 model year and on the market in Spring 2006. Camry is the top selling “automobile” on the market. The Honda Accord is the second of the top tier Japanese heavyweights. The Nissan Altima is the third of these top tier Japanese competitors. Just about every buyer of a mid-size car looks at one of these three entries before buying. Of course, we can’t forget the likes of the Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu and Impala, Mazda6 or Mitsubishi Galant, but the top three from Toyota, Honda and Nissan command the most attention.

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Altima Evolves in Style Even With All New Platform
Nissan showed its new-for-2007 Altima at the New York Auto Show in April and slipped in a few surprises. Counter to most recent design moves, the new Altima’s D-Platform body rides on a 1-inch SHORTER wheelbase. This is a bit surprising when most new cars get longer wheelbases as they evolve these days. Overall length remains the same.
CVT Standard with V6 – Brave Move Reminiscent of Murano
Additionally, Altima’s automatic transmission is now a CVT with the V6 rather than a geared automatic. A 6-speed manual is available for those who like to row between gears. This CVT news is major. Probably means a substantial cost reduction. The Nissan Murano crossover SUV has had a CVT since day one and has done pretty well. Whether a CVT in a major application like Altima is accepted time will tell. Brave move.
Styling Evolutionary – Interior Execution Critical to Success
The new Altima has evolutionary styling. You can probably say that it is not as distinctive and sophisticated as the previous generation Altima, but it is more distinctive than Accord or Camry.
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A major bugaboo for the last Altima was its cut rate interior for the first three years on the market. Until a major interior upgrade for the 2005 model year, Altima interiors were downscale. Clearly met cost targets but not touch targets. After adding hundreds of dollars in interior upgrades for 2005, Nissan suppliers were given very aggressive cost reduction targets for the 2007 model. Hopefully, they have found the cost offsets in places where consumers can’t see or feel them.
Nissan’s abbreviated press kit states, “Enhanced interior feel with refined workmanship, expanded use of soft materials (such as padded armrests) and chrome accents.” Can’t wait!
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Altima Still Nicely Powered
Power for the Altima comes from a 3.5L DOHC 24-valve V6 with 265-plus horsepower. Its 2.5L DOHC 16-valve 4-cylinder has 165-plus horsepower.
Well, jury is out on the new generation Altima. We’ll have to wait until we drive one and experience the interior over several miles before reaching a verdict.


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Nissan GT-R On Its Way to Dealerships – Out of Video Games

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Nissan GT-R Comes to the States
Video racing games and word-of-mouth have elevated prior generations of the Nissan Skyline GT-R to iconic status, though the entry has not yet been offered in the States. This finally changes with the new GT-R. Though Nissan looked long and hard at bringing the GT-R to the States through the Infiniti channel, tradition won out. At the 2006 New York auto show, Nissan announced the 2009 Nissan GT-R will arrive in North American Nissan dealers in spring 2008. A concept version was shown at the 2005 Tokyo Motor Show. AutoPacific and VehicleVoice correspondents were there to see it, and here’s how it looked on Nissan’s home-turf stand.

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GT-R Was Almost an Infiniti
Before the announcement, speculation reported the car as both a Nissan and an Infiniti. The primary benefit for putting the car in the hands of Infiniti dealers was the luxury brand experience and that Infiniti dealers are better-equipped to deal with customers looking for a relatively expensive, high-end sports car. Nissan has the 350Z, which comes with a base price just above $40,000 when the convertible is selected. The production GT-R is likely to play in a price range closer to Chevrolet Corvette and Dodge Viper.
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Based on the same platform that spawned the Nissan 350Z, Infiniti G35, and Infiniti FX SUV, the GT-R promises to capable of taking on the likes of the Lexus SC430 and Cadillac XLR. Styling is distinct from the G35/Skyline to help enable dramatically different positioning.
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Nissan Titan Onyx to Expand Titan Range

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Titan Onyx Suggests Future Personalization Options
At the 2006 Chicago Auto Show, alongside and overshadowed by the updated 2007 Quest, was a Nissan Titan concept called Onyx. Following the press conference and walking the show amongst other industry watchers and journalists, AutoPacific and VehicleVoice correspondents noticed a lack of activity around the Onyx. With any luck, the car-buying public that the Chicago show truly caters to took more notice the following week.

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Nissan created the Onyx concept to gauge reaction for potential future special edition packages or perhaps dealer-installed accessories. The idea is not a bad one, as the other truck manufacturers offer various add-ons, and there is a perception that Nissan buyers may be more into personalizing their ride than some other makes. Nissan has a strong reputation among the tuner crowd, and if they stay loyal to the brand for a truck, they are likely to take their penchant for personalization with them.
Nissan is committed to expanding the Titan lineup, and though the Onyx was only a very small step in that direction, heavy-duty and diesel variants of the Titan will likely arrive before the end of the decade. Showing the concept Titan also likely endeavored to generate some attention for Nissan’s full-size pickup at the show, where it was heavily overshadowed by the unveiling of Toyota’s next Tundra.


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Nissan Quest Gets Interior Redo

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Chicago Auto Show Provides Backdrop for 2007 Quest Introduction
Nissan took a gamble with its current Quest minivan, launched for 2004, with expressive and distinct exterior styling and an unusual interior layout, particularly with regard to the location of typical driving gauges and the overall look to the center console. The gamble did not paid off in the sales the company hoped for, so they take another gamble by admitting that the 2004 product wasn’t perfectly conceived and introducing corrections for the 2007 model year.
At the 2006 Chicago Auto Show, Nissan acknowledged that perhaps the interior went too far pushing the styling edge, and that it hurt sales. Brave for admitting a mistake, the company did so as they announced that they have addressed many of the interior issues with the 2007 model year. Nissan also ‘fessed up to this being the most expensive mid-cycle change in the company’s history. VehicleVoice and AutoPacific were on hand for the show. Our first look at the Quest’s updated interior reveals improvements that will make the minivan much easier and more enjoyable to live with, but perhaps difficult to market. These changes bring the Quest’s interior up to the level that it should have been all along, but do not give Nissan advertising staff much unique to sell.

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