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NAIAS 2005: Interview with Nissan's Thayer Chew
By: Mike Magda Posted: 01-11-05 18:59 PT
© 2005

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Thayer Chew is the senior manager of product planning at Nissan North America. editor Mike Magda sat down with Chew to discuss the background of the 2005 Nissan Frontier's development. Did you see any advantages in coming to market last?

Thayer Chew: Sometimes you have the opportunity to see what the competition has to offer. But honestly, that wasn’t really in our strategic thinking. It was more a function of building capacity in our Smryna (Tennessee) plant as well as the development capabilities of the engineering teams at Nissan. You’ve probably heard that Mr. Ghosn (Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn) has identified a need to bolster some of the engineering resources at Nissan to develop numerous products more rapidly. That is one of our bottlenecks that we’re working hard to overcome.

PUTC: Did you make any changes to the Frontier knowing what other manufacturers had done with their midsize trucks?

TC: Quite honestly, no changes. The planning horizon is so long that we do a lot of customer research up front to identify their wants, desires and needs. We feel pretty confident at the end of that process that we have a good understanding of customer requirements. That said, there is the development cycle where a certain amount of time passes before your product is launched to market. We still feel very comfortable with what the customer research told us as well as our internal studies that the offering is very competitive.

PUTC: What about the numbers game, towing capacity and horsepower, for example? You waited until the last minute to announce those numbers. Was there any hindsight available in making those decisions?

TC: I think you’re always looking at where your competitors are but that can’t be your sole focus because then you’re really more of a follower than a leader. What you do is evaluate realistically—whether it’s towing or payload or horsepower—and assess what the market climate is and plan from there. What’s amazed me over time is that theoretically competitors are doing it all in isolation and yet when their products come to market, in many cases they’re remarkably similar in terms of specs.

PUTC: Do you see any disadvantages in having the Titan and Frontier look so similar, such a potential Titan customer not wanting the truck because it looks like a small truck?

TC: I really don’t. I think Nissan is looking—not just in the truck family but also in the SUV and sedan families—to have a Nissan corporate identity. We do so through similar styling cues. Obviously we want to avoid a cookie cutter in small, medium and large. Certainly styling cues can be reminiscent of other family members and still be strong within their own competitive set.

PUTC: Once you get this attitude embedded in the consumer, do you see any opportunity to start making the vehicles more distinguishable?

TC: You do, but there are similarities and there are differences between the compact pickup and fullsize pickup target buyers. In terms of the similarities, I think that’s where you can have a common thread on your truck lineup and offer the same innovativeness such as the utility bed features. And so is there really a need to be distinctive from midsize Frontier to fullsize Titan? I think the benefits reaped from those types of innovative features are universally appealing, regardless of what segment you’re shopping.

PUTC: When Titan came out, Nissan officials talked about the need to establish credibility with the fullsize truck buyer. Obviously Frontier already has equity built into its name. What did you see as the main goal for this third-generation Frontier?

TC: Perhaps with the current Frontier (second generation introduced in 2001) we strayed in a little bit different direction than we historically have. It’s interesting to me that when we conducted consumer research we still hear positive comments about the Hardbody, which at this point is getting a little bit old (last produced in 1997). So our desire for the new Frontier was to return almost to the Hardbody roots. I’m a little reluctant to say that because it’s not like we’re recreating a new generation of the Hardbody, but we wanted to return to the authentic truck that’s capable, and in this case, a midsize truck with fullsize capability.

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