For at least the past couple of decades, reports Iain Robertson, Nissan has used its strategic partnership with Renault to bypass the fence-sitting in which most of its rivals indulge, in the process highlighting its attention to consumer demand and percolating back to a notional pole position, while others flounder.
When our government set its all-electric vehicle ‘switch on’ target for 1st January 2030, even though less than ten years existed before ‘E-Day’, a larger slice of the new car scene hoved into view, as consumers felt it was not merely their right but their environmental duty to support the programme. The response from the motor industry has actually been no less than confused but, worse, intransigent, perhaps even arrogant, through not believing that it would happen. As a result, some carmakers have been dipping their toes into electrification, while others have been making hollow promises, at a time when ‘short supply’, thanks to component shortfalls and a greater desire not to be caught with their pants down, have weighed heavily in their vicinity.
It is not so long ago that Jaguar-Land-Rover announced a timely and blanket commitment to electric power, only for absolutely nothing to happen. Volkswagen, on the other hand, tried to grab the publicity bandwagon for its ‘I.D’ line-up underscoring its activities by getting new Group products into the market as speedily as possible. Yet, Nissan has always played a more subtle hand, just getting on with the job, gradually building its portfolio of electrically charged models, without crowing from the rooftops. Although, as a company, it behaves a bit like a ‘non-dom’, carrying out its pan-European accountancy duties in Rolle, Switzerland and, despite the substantial amounts of UK funding in its Sunderland plant, using the ’employment in a dark place’ argument as a notional cover-up, its public face is normally most acceptable.
To be fair to Nissan, having attended its run of ‘360-degree’ events, at which international motoring journalists are presented with the fullest range of its production models and even many of its concepts, even though they are unlikely to be sold in our domestic market, the company has always been very open about its material intentions. The pioneering Nissan Leaf, consistently upgraded during its existence so far, is soon to be joined by the snowplough-fronted Ariya crossover, which may not be the prettiest of BEVs but is certainly on the money, as far as charge timing, range and packaging are concerned. In fact, the Leaf model has matured very satisfactorily since its original 2010 debut, the latest example ditching clearly the oddball appearance of its forebear, in favour of normalcy. However, the Townstar light commercial van serves ideal purpose as a city centre, zero emissions runabout that possesses practical delivery space and total ease of driving as its core attributes.
While not all of its products today feature electrification, by this time next year, Nissan will cease installing fossil-fuelled engines in all of its new UK destined line-up, as it eyes up its Ambition 2030 programme, by which time each of its models will be part, or fully electrified. No confusion there. The popular Juke, Qashqai and X-Trail models all gain from e-Power hybridisation but their platform architecture is geared towards full electrification in the very near future, having been designed from the outset for such a technological move. It is worth noting that Nissan is also a serial investor in new battery developments, the impact of which is felt consistently in its latest EVs and BEVs.
When reflecting on Nissan’s past, at various times it has been the doyen of the company car sector, during the late-1990s with the Primera line-up that was appreciated for its right-sizing, superior vehicle dynamics and all-round competitive performance; in the early-1980s with its first-generation Mini-aping Micra and during the noughties with one of the most comprehensive ranges of crossovers and SUVs of any carmaker. Its carmaking plant in Sunderland received early funding from the Thatcher government and, apart from raising unemployment levels in the former regional blackspot, has recently been nominated as a ‘carbon-zero’ model for the rest of the industry. Of course, it was not free of controversy, which led to Renault forging its unique strategic alliance, as an essential late-1990s rescue bid for the Japanese firm. However, the relationship has been of as much positive benefit to Renault, as it has Nissan and, together, they drew troubled Mitsubishi into the mix in recent times, although the fruits of that exercise have not been as revealing as may have been hoped for, the company closing its UK independent operation, only reopening it recently in the hands of Birmingham-based distributor, IM Group, a business that seems to be more in favour of ‘commercial invisibility’ with both Subaru and Isuzu brands.
Conclusion: Knowing that you are on ‘safe ground’, in a market sector based currently on shifting sands, is a gamble but Nissan is more of a sure bet than almost any other carmaker. What it does not know about EVs and BEVs is not worth knowing but what it has on its horizon is genuinely enticing and, if not ‘futureproof’, then pretty close to it.