Nissan Looks Abroad to Sell More Trucks as New Rivals Arrive Stateside

November 27, 2018, 11:15 PM UTC

As manufacturers brace for a bevy of new pickups crowding the market, one of the smallest players—still reeling from the dismissal of its top executive—is looking abroad to meet its sales goals.

The Jeep Wrangler-based pickup debuting at this week’s Los Angeles Auto Show is just one of several models to enter the lucrative truck segment over the next two years. Seeking a stronger foothold amid the new arrivals, Nissan has embarked upon an aggressive mid-term plan, targeting a 40% rise in global sales for its pickup trucks, SUVs and commercial vans, buses and trucks by 2022.

Trucks have outpaced the industry’s post-recession comeback since 2014, picking up sales as customers lose interest in sedans. Pickups and SUVs now account for two out of every three new vehicle sales in the U.S.

But a surge of new models could thwart Nissan’s ambition. A trio of top-selling trucks —the Ram 1500, Chevrolet Silverado, and GMC Sierra—sport new designs for the 2019 model year, and Europe’s bestselling truck, the Ford Ranger, is slated to arrive stateside soon.

Though Nissan remains committed to its full-size Titan and mid-size Frontier in the U.S., it’s focused on global expansion. The automaker aims to pump sales of trucks, vans, and larger SUVs to nearly 1 million, boosted by its top-seller, the Navara mid-size pickup, as well as newer vehicles such as the Terra SUV developed for China.

Like its rivals, Nissan relies upon high-margin pickup trucks and SUVs to offset an industrywide decline in U.S. car sales. A 3% sales gain for Nissan trucks and SUVs through the first 10 months of the year has helped stanch losses from a 17% drop in its car sales.

“Pickups and SUVs are very profitable for us,” Randy Parker, division general manager of global marketing and sales for Nissan’s light truck division, told Fortune. Without them, “the company basically couldn’t survive.”

Two weeks ago, Nissan suffered a major setback with the arrest and dismissal of Chairman Carlos Ghosn, who also engineered Nissan’s alliance with Renault and Mitsubishi. Nissan declined to comment on how Ghosn’s departure would affect its strategy to sell more trucks.

“The market is fierce this year,” said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst at IHS Markit. “With little change to Titan this year, on normal launch cadence, Nissan has incentive to keep its trucks in the conversation.”

Without near-term plans to make over the Titan or the 14-year-old Frontier, Nissan is positioning itself as an edgier alternative to its more popular rivals. “We’re the alternative to check out,” Parker said. “We’re not going to compete on price.”

Customers have proved willing to spend money on trucks and SUVs, both for commercial work and weekend recreation. Sales of full-size pickups and utility vehicles over $50,000 have been a bright spot in an already hot market. Meanwhile, the average transaction price for mid-size trucks has jumped 27%, to nearly $32,750, for the first 10 months of the year, according to data from J.D. Power.

Parker said that Nissan’s trucks are as capable as competitors’ but suffer from a lack of consumer awareness. “Our trucks are authentic,” he said. “They can do anything any other truck can do.”

“We’re still a car company learning how to sell trucks in the marketplace.”