5.12.08

THE SHAPE OF A MARKET-DRIVEN RESTRUCTURING. A USA Today story on some new Nissan panel trucks opens ominously.

As if Detroit automakers don't have enough trouble.

While the Detroit 3 were in Washington pleading for a bailout, Nissan showed off a pair of new vehicle concepts Thursday that take aim at the market segment that is one of the few remaining gravy trains for the domestics: smaller commercial trucks.

The two concepts are aimed at showing how Nissan will make a run at the delivery and utility truck markets — vehicles for businesses that need plain, dependable wheels for everything from flower delivery to mobile workspace.

But keep reading. The automotive creative class still agglomerates in the neighborhood of Detroit, or perhaps of Ann Arbor.

The Japanese maker says it will start with three truck models in 2010. It is yet to be seen how much they will incorporate of the ideas unveiled at the Nissan Design America studio in Farmington Hills, Mich.

The smaller of the two concept trucks, the NV200, has a novel cargo bay that slides out and is powered by a small diesel engine. The larger one, a world-debut Nissan billed as one of its biggest concepts ever, was built on the frame of a Titan pickup. The NV2500 was shown outfitted as a mobile office for a home builder.

The physical capital is also there.

With Nissan planning to end production of Titan and collaborate with Chrysler on a pickup based on the new Dodge Ram, a final version of a similar-size truck could vary substantially.

But if these concepts become reality, they could drive one of the strongest efforts yet by an import brand to finally get a foothold on one of Detroit's last profit bastions. Ford Motor, General Motors and Chrysler together have 95% of the smaller commercial truck market, says Len Deluca, a Ford director for truck sales.

Different ownership and different management might raise the going-concern value of that capital. On the other hand, perhaps the winning move is to build some new capacity.

It may help that Nissan will build its new trucks in the USA. It's spending $118 million to expand its Canton, Miss., plant to build the three models.

Nissan plans to produce a truck lineup to the smaller midsize category, known in the industry as a Class 5, says Joe Castelli, a Nissan North America vice president.

He says the timing is just right. The truck line should be ready just as the economy is starting to recover. "There is still a good opportunity," Castelli said.

The more forward-looking of the U.S. parts suppliers that know how to convert plastic and steel into truck subassemblies are planning to provide those things to Nissan, and perhaps to Toyota for those Tundras. (Kia is going to have to rethink Santa Fe and Sedona as nameplates, but that's a different kind of post.)

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