Fleet News

Face to Face: Nissan's style gamble set to pay dividends in fleet

MANY manufacturers introduce radical styling concepts and cutting-edge technology in niche products in order to test the water before committing to a mainstream roll-out.

However, Nissan has bucked the trend sharply with its new Primera, a car designed to take on the heartland of the conservative UK company car market by offering a genuinely alternative approach to the standard mould for the upper- medium sector.

This is an important styling signpost for forthcoming models from the Anglo-Franco-Japanese manufacturer, with the Micra replacement likely to be the next core model to take a walk on the wild side of the design drawing board.

Fortunately for Nissan, the early feedback on the new Primera has been positive, and the car has struck a welcome chord with fleets, contract hire companies and drivers, according to Dave Murfitt, Nissan's fleet sales director.

For him, the contrast between the reception of the old and new Primera could not have been more stark.

'With the previous Primera we had to go out and sell it hard, but now customers are telephoning us because they are interested in the car, and we are getting lots of requests for demonstrators,' he said.

Nissan has close on 500 short and long-term demonstrator Primeras available for fleet appraisal, although the manufacturer's fleet launch of the car began months ago.

The early supply of prices and specifications to the leasing sector meant contract hire companies could pre-prepare lease quotations to coincide with the car's launch, while open dialogue with the used car price guides provided forecasters with more concrete evidence on which to base their residual value projections.

Further pledges to restrict daily rental sales of new Primera to contracts negotiated between dealers and hire companies (Nissan will not be supplying Primera to any of the major daily rental firms on its corporate buy-back rental terms) have also helped residual value forecasts. Put bluntly, very few nearly new Primeras should hit the market in the next 12 months.

'We conducted road shows with the car, presenting it to all the major contract hire companies and their sales staff, and the message has got through,' said Murfitt.

'The contract hire industry is genuinely enthusiastic about the car, and has set rates that are slightly lower than those for the Mondeo and Laguna, which is giving sales staff the confidence to go out and present the car.'

The Laguna is an interesting comparison for the Primera, not only because it sits at the sharper end of the styling spectrum, but also because Nissan and Renault are technically sister companies through reciprocal shareholdings.

While this has seen closer ties in terms of back office administration, distribution, purchasing and platform development, the two manufacturers remain committed competitors in the car fleet sector, with separate sales forces, databases and fleet strategies.

'In the marketplace we have competing brands, even if we are alliance partners, and it's important that we maintain our respective brand identities with separate operations and sales teams to maintain that focus,' said Murfitt.

This means, for example, that Nissan staff will not promote the Renault Avantime or Vel Satis to plug any perceived gap in the Nissan model range at the executive level, with Murfitt highlighting the QX as firm's offering in this sector, alongside a competitive 4x4 range that extends from the X-Trail to the Terrano and Patrol.

The off-roaders may not be obvious fleet contenders in light of the emissions-based company car tax system, but not every driver thinks with his or her wallet, argues Murfitt.

'As an opt-out car, the 4x4s have appeal, and manufacturers' ranges increasingly have to have appeal beyond the core sectors,' he said. 'There is still an emotional pull of having the car you want, and people will accept a slightly higher tax band to have that car.'

However, it was Nissan's value for money approach, alongside its long-held reputation for reliability, that paved the way for fleet sales success in 2001, with the Almera and its MPV sister the Tino leading the charge. The result was Nissan becoming the fastest-growing mainstream fleet manufacturer in 2001, with sales to companies up 37% to 53,732 units, despite the run-out of Primera.

While new Primera brings user-chooser appeal to its mainstream range, Nissan also sees scope for immediate improvement is in its light commercial vehicle range, and it has seized on the opportunity to 'rebadge' Renault's popular range of vans to complement its current Vanette, Cabstar, Pickup and Terrano range.

This month the Nissan Interstar (a rebadged Renault Master) hits the roads, followed by the Primastar (the Trafic) in October, and the yet-to-be-named Kangoo-based model in mid-2003.

'When we have the three cross-badged products we will have one of the widest van ranges in the market,' said Murfitt.

'And we are investing heavily to support our van sales, appointing an lcv fleet sales manager, Nick Andrews, who is recruiting five dedicated, customer-facing lcv fleet specialists.'

The cross-badged vans will be priced identically to their Renault equivalents, and incentives should be similar, but Murfitt believes there are key areas of the market where Nissan can drive its van sales forward.

In particular, the small fleet market lies dormant with opportunity, an area Nissan plans to tackle through its Nissan Business Centres in dealers. It has recently appointed 50 dealers to be Business Centres and they will employ dedicated fleet car and van specialists, charged with targeting small fleets, with assistance from head office.

Overall, Nissan plans to increase its UK market share to above 4%, with retail sales, buoyed by the new Micra, set to account for a greater share of UK business, although fleet remains central to the company's UK ambitions.

'Nissan has been established in the fleet market for a long time, and we have waited for a long time to have product with natural desirability. We have the infrastructure, an established fleet team, and we intend to capitalise on the opportunity we see with new Primera,' said Murfitt.

'The new Micra will continue the trend of changing people's perceptions of Nissan because it's bold and stylish.

'Our aim is to broaden the appeal of Nissan in the fleet market - we have the product to achieve user-chooser appeal, while building on our core strengths of reliability, durability and engineering quality.'

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