Innovation & Design

Nissan Redesigns a Japanese Icon


The carmaker's enterprising designers have entirely remade the iconic GT-R sports car, and it's coming to America

Bathed in the red glow of Nissan's (NSANY) exhibit at the Los Angeles Auto Show on Nov. 14, several hundred journalists, auto dealers, and executives from competing manufacturers swarmed anxiously. They were waiting for a glimpse of a car many had already seen at its splashy world premiere during the Tokyo Auto Show in October (BusinessWeek.com, 10/24/07), not to mention in dozens of photographs online. But where Nissan's new GT-R supercar goes, a fevered spectacle invariably follows.

It's no wonder. The $69,850 sports car has a 480-hp, twin turbo V6 engine that packs a race-car kick, sending it rocketing from zero to 62 mph in 3.6 seconds. As far as iconic car designs go, it ranks with the Ford (F) Mustang or Chevy's Corvette. Adding to the anticipation, it will be the first time the car has been produced in five years. It will also be the first time the Japanese vehicle is legitimately available in the U.S., and not simply as a legally suspect import on the grey market for exotic cars. "This is a true enthusiast's car," says Mark McNabb, Nissan's senior vice-president for sales and marketing. "And it'll beat the pants off anything out there."

The GT-R badge has had a committed following in Japan since its debut as a racing vehicle in the mid-1960s. In the past decade, its fan base has been stoked and broadened by the car's prominent appearance in video games like Gran Turismo and movies such as The Fast and the Furious. But production was stopped a half-decade ago as Nissan faced a stark financial crisis. The newly designed GT-R is a symbol of the resurgent—and now global—Nissan, which has undergone a radical turnaround under Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn.

Global Design Inspiration

Two years ago, Ghosn and Shiro Nakamura, Nissan's chief creative officer, directed the three design studios in Europe, North America, and Japan to dream up the next version of the vehicle, which will go on sale in June, 2008. "The GT-R is unique because it is not simply a copy of a European-designed supercar," says Nakamura, a spry man behind thin, rimless glasses. "It had to really reflect [Japanese] culture," he adds.

"Japan owned the name, the rich heritage," agrees Bruce Campbell, Nissan's vice-president for design in the U.S. "But we were much more rebellious, and the Europeans were not so reverent of the vehicle's long history." So while the new version retains some of the elements of the original GT-R (e.g., the rounded tail lamps), the final design was an international affair.

In an era of supercars from Aston Martin and Ferrari, with their swooping forms and organic lines, the new GT-R is unabashedly boxy, with thick, chunky rear haunches and flared front-wheel well arches. According to Nakamura, the inspiration for the model's square lines and high-tech vents came from Gundam, the Japanese anime series featuring giant robots.

American designers contributed a more rounded set of contours on the rear three-quarters of the vehicle, softening the stark, flat trunk lines drawn in Japan. The European designers, meanwhile, influenced the roofline of the car, adding a hard kick in the C-pillar unlike in any other current Nissan vehicle. "It was truly a global event," says Campbell of the design process. "We honored the [car's] Japanese DNA, and now it's a global offering."

Cost-Cutting Eschewed

In a highly competitive business climate for automakers, the most successful executives—Ghosn among them—are masters of cost-cutting and maximizing parts-sharing between models. And early on, designers and engineers flirted with the idea that the new GT-R could share components with one of the company's luxury cars, such as the Infiniti G series, thereby reducing production costs.

For instance, a set of switches for the car's dash-mounted controls could have been shared with other Nissan cars. Or seats could have been based on another model's. Both tactics cut costs. In the end, though, both plans were scrapped—largely to preserve the GT-R's special character. And the specialized nature of the GT-R's high-speed driving experience—the car is capable of exceeding 170 miles per hour—also required designers to create a specific dashboard layout and custom seating positions. "This car is a handful," says Campbell. "You have to be able to operate the switches blind, without flying off the road." Nakamura adds: "There are almost no common parts [with other Nissans]. Just some minor, internal guts."

That radical uniqueness has its downsides. Other halo cars (vehicles that don't sell in high volumes but cast a positive glow on the rest of the lineup) also contribute to the styling of less expensive models. But in this case, both Nissan designers agree that the GT-R will have little, if any, influence on upcoming versions of more quotidian cars such as the mainline Altima sedan or popular Xterra sport-utility vehicles. "There are no big cues for Nissan here," says Nakamura. "This one will stand alone, because the GT-R is built from its own design language."

Refining the Company's Image

With Nissan's business stabilized, the new design is unlikely to boost the company's profile the way that previous models did. Even with anticipation running so high, the drama of the daring new model is somewhat diminished by Nissan's current financial strength. In contrast, in the late 1990s, the Z roadster, which was created as an unsanctioned, Skunk Works-style project under Campbell's design team, was unexpectedly given the green light by Ghosn, becoming a stylish poster vehicle for the company's turnaround. "At that time nobody knew what a Nissan was supposed to be," says Campbell. Now, Nissan's brand is much less muddied, and the GT-R is more likely to refine, rather than redefine, the company's image.

Still, with its superlative performance, purpose-built cachet, and intensely scrutinized design, the new GT-R also is likely to extend the model's enthusiast following. "With this vehicle, our task wasn't just styling," says a satisfied Nakamura as he looks at the car, mobbed by press and show attendees after the L.A. unveiling. "Every detail has meaning."

Check out the BusinessWeek.com slide show for a look at the new GT-R.


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