Interview with Larry Dominique,
In a few short months, Nissan will unveil its first-ever full-size pickup truck to the world at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It will debut in 2003 as an '04 model, and will be built at Nissan's new facility in Canton, Mississippi.
We had a chance to chat with Larry Dominique, chief product specialist on the new truck. Dominique works in Nissan's North America (NNA) product planning department where he oversees product competitiveness from a consumer perspective, from development and throughout the product lifecycle. He is also responsible for the Xterra, Frontier, the upcoming full-size Nissan and Infiniti SUVs and the next-generation Xterra, Frontier and Pathfinder.
Previously, Dominique was manager of product planning for Nissan Technical Center North America, Inc. (NTCNA). He worked on the development of the Xterra and Frontier Crew Cab, as well as the MY01 Frontier face-lift.
joined Nissan in April 1989 as group project engineer in NTCNA's Electrical,
Electronics and Harnesses Engineering Department. He also has worked as
a group project engineer in NTCNA's Interior Trim Department and at the
NTCNA Tennessee Liaison Office in Smyrna, Tenn. Prior to joining Nissan,
Dominique held positions with Chrysler and General Motors.
holds a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Lawrence Technological
University in Southfield, Mich.
PickupTruck.com: What is your take on the state of the full size truck market today?
Larry Dominique: I was just looking at the industry sales numbers. It continues to amaze me how wonderfully stable this industry is. When we look at the actual background data relative to transaction price and demographics of those buying these truck products, we're really pleased; as we're planning to enter full size market, you want to see growth like this.
When I look at the half-ton market, it has stayed stable. It's a segment of about 1.6 million units, while the rest is three-quarter ton and above. Our first focus will be on the half-ton segment, and as we get ready to enter the market, what we see is positive for us: a stable and growing segment. Of the 18 million overall vehicles sold in the U.S., about 2.3 million are pickups, which means one out of every eight vehicles is a full size truck.
PUTC: Why did Nissan decide to enter this market?
Dominique: We looked at the full size truck market and saw that there weren't many choices out there for customers; for example, there are 20 different products in the mid-size sedan segment, but only four choices in the full-size truck market. Having an alternative choice is exciting to customers. We decided to enter the market based on the marketplace dynamic: with the total sales volume in the segment and with such few choices, we realized we should be there. In addition, there's a lot of profit in the full-size market. The average transaction price is $6,000 more than the average sedan price, and that translates to good business. There is some negative involved with the decision, though, such as the amount of investment necessary to make the jump into full-size trucks; it took some changes inside of Nissan to rationalize those factors.
PUTC: What are Nissan's goals for the truck?
Dominique: We see the pickup truck market as a long-term endeavor; we have to be realistic in our initial assumptions; we know we're not going to sell one million trucks right away; we have to establish ourselves and the ZW [codename] as an extremely credible product. We spent time studying the marketplace, and focused on "un-met needs" studies. For example, instead of asking owners what they liked about their trucks, we asked them what they didn't like, and what they weren't happy with, as well as what they'd like to see changed. We also did home-placement studies, where we gave people all the competitive products to drive. We drove with and talked to them; we studied how people lived their lives as full-size truck owners.
Before we set targets relative to size, horsepower, torque, towing and interior roominess, we looked at all the study results from a combination standpoint, and based on all this research, we discovered what we needed to do in hardware to make the truck undeniably competitive with the established domestic trucks. When we did this study, we found out a lot of interesting information. Not to knock Toyota, but according to our studies, the Tundra was truly a 7/8ths product to consumers; it's undersized and under-powered, and in the first two years of sales, 50 percent of Tundra purchasers came out of other Toyota products. Nissan doesn't have that level of loyalty in trucks, so we knew we had to conquer more sales from other manufacturers, whether it's the domestics or Toyota, or delivering a truck to people new to the segment. Do we see room for growth with new people to the segment? From our research, people have told us that, after seeing our truck, that it's the first truck they would ever consider buying, so yes, we see first-time owners getting into the segment.
PUTC: What truck did you benchmark for the new Nissan?
Dominique: We didn't benchmark one specific truck; we benchmarked every one in our target segment. We didn't just say we wanted this part of the Silverado, that part of Tundra, or this from the F150; we targeted specific attributes from the best, and said we needed to be better. There isn't a lot of innovation in trucks; for example, regular cabs and king cabs have been the same for a long time, as have other truck features. We didn't see anything we had to have, but in order for us to be credible, we have to achieve a certain level of utility, such as in horsepower and towing. We set our limits and targets so that when we come to market, we have no excuses from anyone. The one mistake we cannot afford to make is to come to market with an underperforming truck.
PUTC: How will you capitalize on Nissan's overall success in relation to the truck?
Dominique: There will be a lot of use of Nissan from a synergy standpoint, especially from the truck and SUV side. It started with Xterra 75 percent of Xterra buyers were new to Nissan. They liked the fact that we were innovative and offered products people wanted, which helped us capture new people to the segment. When we reveal the new truck in Detroit in January, you will see innovation that goes with the Nissan brand identification you see on other Nissan products.
PUTC: Do you see a performance version in the future like the Ford Lightning, Chevy Silverado SS, or Dodge SRT-10?
Dominique: We spent a lot of time talking about this; it all goes back to credibility and establishing ourselves. We had to look at the lifecycle and beyond of the ZW, and I see potential for a performance version. But the base truck is going to have good horsepower to start, with a good powertrain, good technology, and a solid platform. I'll have lots of flexibility with what I can do. As a matter of fact, when they designed the new direct 90-degree V-block V-8, I made sure it would be able to accommodate a supercharger.
PUTC: Why do you think Americans have such a love affair going with pickup trucks?
Dominique: That's a good question. We now have had five different research activities relative to full-size trucks. We've taken models to Dallas, Denver, Salt Lake City, New Mexico, and always start out our research by asking: why a full-size truck? What's important about a full size truck to you? People tell us over and over that a full-size truck fits a utility need in their lifestyles that no other vehicle can meet. It goes back to the "just-in-case" mentality: "Just in case I need to help a friend move; just in case I need to tow a buddy out of a ditch." It's the expectation of what a truck can do.
Ten years ago, the full-size truck market was about one million units, and most of it was hard-core truck guys who needed a truck. For the last 10 years it's been about people who want, not need, a truck. That's why we see the three-quarter-ton market segment growing so fast; hard-core guys want to be separated and seen as true truck guys.
PUTC: How important is it to have a truck that's built in America?
Dominique: We've broached this question in research to a lot of people and found it's most important to long-term domestic truck owners. To the intenders, those who own a compact but want a full-size truck, it's less of an issue. For us it's a bonus, the ability to build a full-size truck that's distinctive to the U.S. market; it's a truck made by Americans for Americans, and every decision was made knowing it was a U.S.-only truck.
PUTC: Will this platform be shared with the full size SUV built out of the same Canton facility?
Dominique: This will be a shared platform with the full-size SUV, although the rear suspensions will be different; the SUV will feature an independent rear suspension.
PUTC: How important is a V-8 engine to a full-size truck platform, even though Nissan builds outstanding six-cylinder engines that produce impressive power?
Dominique: Without a high-performance V-8, meaning horsepower and torque, you might as well just stay home. To full-size truck buyers, the first thing they do is walk up to the spec sheet and look at the horsepower and torque numbers, as well as towing capacity and fuel economy, hoping for something better. Things that came out over and over in our research were appearance and a roomy interior, but a lot of it came back to the credibility of engine specifications. You can offer a V-6, but you better have a V-8. It was amazing how much intimate knowledge of specifications these buyers have. They know engine sizes, DOHC, SOHC, pushrod, horsepower and torque of all truck engines; they know towing numbers, and more. Full-size truck buyers are some of the most cautious buyers out there. They are not spontaneous; they're internet savvy, read reference books like Consumer Reports, kick tires, and do test drives. The typical buying cycle is eight months. Truck buyers carefully research what they're getting into. Trucks have a higher transaction price and are a bigger investment. Full-size truck owners spend a higher proportion of their incomes on the purchase. A lot of them are not college decreed, but their truck is an extension of themselves; it's similar to a relationship between owners of sports cars: I am my truck, my truck is me; which is why you see a higher degree of customization with truck owners.
PUTC: Do you have a desire to put more women behind the wheel of the truck, and if so, how will you approach it?
The full-size truck segment is 80-85 percent male, but women are likely
to decrease that percentage. The number of women behind the wheel of pickups
is changing on its own, and has become more significant in the past five
years. For example, 60 percent of Xterra owners are women. When we first
launched Xterra, we expected 65 percent male ownership. What they said
they liked in the Xterra was that it wasn't fluff, it wasn't soft. The
gap is narrowing of what people want in vehicles. In our research, women
said they liked the appearance of the new truck more than the domestic
products. Not because it was "pretty," but because it had more
Dominique: Our dealer body is extremely excited about the new truck coming. Desire across the board is more pent up in Dallas and Denver; the excitement level is higher. Dealers also see dollar signs; it's incremental business and a big profit maker for them, and in accessories as well. In the accessory business, trucks see two times as much per-unit dollar sales than sedans. We're doing some things internally in order to get ready for it. We're doing some out-of-the-box thinking to get them geared up. We have created something called FORT, a Full size Operational Readiness Team that consists of 14 dealers; nine of those own a Nissan and a domestic franchise, while the rest are Nissan franchise owners only. So we've mixed those who have never sold a truck before with those who have them on their lots. We are going through every facet of operations, from tire/wheel balancing stations to seeing if they have a rack that can fit a full-size truck to sizing up if the front door of the dealership is big enough to fit a truck through! Also, does their lot have room to park full-size trucks, and do they have room to turn them around. Beyond that, we're talking about types of training. Selling full-size trucks is not like selling anything else. We need to train the sales people appropriately, so that's why we're going through every facet of operations and dealer relations to make sure our dealers are ready.
PUTC: Nissan has said before that it plans to set new standards with its full-size truck. GM will be introducing Displacement on Demand and hybrid versions of its full-size trucks, and Quadrasteer now is on the market. On the concept Project X Xterra, we saw a hint of some of this technology, with the ELocker electronic locking front and rear differentials. How important is it to have state-of-the-art technologies on a full-size truck, and what other types of technology are you looking at developing with this new truck?
Dominique: This goes back to that "un-met" needs question. As far as Quadrasteer, we've had lots of conversation with Delphi...This system is more applicable to the bigger trucks, and since we're going to focus first on half-tons, we will be applying technology where we see it's necessary. It's important to us to first address the specific areas of need, such as fuel economy. We want to put things on our trucks that make sense and can see some benefit to the consumer. Truck guys are, to a certain degree, technophobes. They want to know how easy it will be to work on their engines. We try to tell them that they won't need to be working on our engines, since they're reliable and dependable! In general, though, simpler is better. We'd rather focus on that side of the truck. People know that the powerplant will be bigger than the Q45 engine, and what's important to us right now is big displacement and good horsepower and torque, not over-the-top technology. That's what went into the new engine design. You don't need $1,000 worth of toys on the engine to make power. We need to get across that we're trying to simplify the design and just make it powerful.
PUTC: How much of a free hand did Nissan USA have in creating this truck? What were the cultural barriers with the Japanese that had to be overcome? Do they understand the full size truck market and its importance in the U.S.?
Dominique: The good news is our senior management in Japan recognized that this is a U.S.-only product. Nissan has 23 chief product specialists, and I'm the only one who isn't Japanese. I'm located here, not in Japan, in the heart of the market, and have been since the inception. The entire core truck team is American, from the marketability guys to all of the design of the truck at NDA. Dianne Allen ['01 Frontier] is the primary designer. Most of the design work is doing in Farmington Hills, Michigan. The engine and platform were done in Japan with clear targets for performance and hardware.
I have a
great story that I always tell in relation to this question. Five to six
years ago, when we were meeting with the engine guys in Japan talking
about Xterra, Frontier and the truck, we also talked about creating this
new V-8 engine. The Japanese noted that since this was not a military
vehicle, what did we need a V-8 engine for? It was obvious they were not
familiar with what V-8 engines meant to the U.S. market, and we had to
educate people on what this market needed. But once they understood, they
embraced it. As a matter of fact, the engine guys really enjoyed making
this V-8 engine. They thought it was pretty exciting!
We at PUTC think it's pretty exciting, too, and can't wait to see the truck in person in Detroit next January. Our thanks to Larry Dominique for taking the time to speak with us.