I remember when Nissan said it was giving up the ‘boring’ car market and dealing only in what were, at the time, niches. Quirky tall things. Things that didn’t sell in large volumes. That funny Qashqai thing: not quite a car, not quite a 4x4 either.
We weren’t long out of the 1990s, a decade in which the list of the top 10 best-selling cars in the UK went something like this: Ford's Fiesta, Focus, Mondeo, Vauxhall's Vectra, Astra, Corsa, Peugeot 306, Volkswagen Golf, Rovers 200, 400. Family cars all. Straight family cars. Not always a Nissan among them, although the Micra dabbled inside the top 10, because it was, then, a cute supermini. So Nissan got into what were seen as niches. Ballsy move. And it has stayed there.
Search for Nissan today and the clickable result for Nissan’s UK website reads: ‘Nissan city cars, electric cars, crossovers, sports cars and…’ (There’s nothing after the ‘and’, incidentally.) The more general description beneath reads ‘city cars, crossovers, electric cars, 4x4 vehicles and much more’. There’s no mention of a family car in sight (which, given that its family car is the Pulsar and its advertising strapline is ‘innovation that excites’, is reasonable enough).
Yet bring up the SMMT’s numbers for the best-selling cars this January and – after the obligatory Fiesta – there it is: the Nissan Qashqai, at number two. The Nissan Juke is at six. In fact, there’s no room at all in the top 10 for any conventional large family car (Mondeo, Insignia), which means, instead of habitually bagging six of the 10 top spots, Ford and Vauxhall are reduced to only being sure of two apiece, as are VW (Polo, Golf). Vauxhall’s next most likely? The Mokka, the 10th best-selling car in the UK last year. A crossover. Those pesky niches. What kept you?
I’m not taking aim at Ford or Vauxhall, I should add. But how did Nissan predict what broader mid-market car makers did not? Okay, Rover had its reasons for departing the best sellers list (and this earth), but what of the others that used to be the second, third, fourth best sellers in their class? What did Nissan see that Renault, its own sister company, failed to? The Peugeot 306 was the seventh best-selling car in the UK. Now the 308 isn’t even the seventh best-selling car in its class.
And more to the point, what are they going to do about it? That the Mokka outsells the Insignia suggests to me that you can pour as much posh Vignale treacle over a Mondeo as you like, but people will still prefer a crossover. Or they’ll choose a traditional premium brand over an invented alternative; alongside the small cars and Nissans sit an Audi and a Mercedes-Benz in January’s best seller list.
If I were at the top of a mainstream car company, I’d be looking at my model range and wondering if I shouldn’t have taken some big decisions quite a long time ago.