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Nissan heads down SUV route

The days of the Primera and Almera are numbered as Nissan reconfirms its direction as a manufacturer of niche, 4x4, pick-up and lifestyle vehicles with the announcement of a new mini-MPV and a compact crossover vehicle for its Sunderland plant.

The two new models, based on the Tone and Qashqai showcars, will be produced at the Tyre & Wear factory – Europe’s most productive automotive assembly facility for the past eight years – within 16 months, alongside Micra and the Micra C+C coupe convertible.

C+C production is to start in September, Tone in January 2006 and the Qashqai-based P32L from December 2006. Whether Almera and Primera will still be produced at NMUK, or at another Renault-Nissan Alliance plant, or at all, remains in the balance.

“It depends if we can sell them profitably. No decision has been made on whether either will continue or where they might be built if they do,” says Sunderland plant manager Colin Dodge, senior vice-president of manufacturing Nissan Europe, who is also responsible for Nissan vehicle assembly in Spain.

He dismisses as “horse crap to fill newspaper columns” international press speculation that up to 1,000 jobs are at risk at NMUK should Primera (which has been produced in Sunderland since 1990 but which is now struggling to sell in significant numbers in Britain) be axed or an all-new version moved to share the Laguna line in France.

Production of Almera models runs at about 85,000 units a year and Primera 40,000 – a total of 125,000. P32L volume alone is pitched initially at 105,000 rising to 130,000 in a plant that will be running at 320,000 annually with current and new ranges and has the capacity to produce 400,000 on three to four different lines.

Nissan will invest £223m to upgrade the factory for Tone and P32L production as part of a deal won against stiff competition from other Alliance plants.

Dodge sees this as a long-term safeguard for 1,000 NMUK factory employees and another 4,000 supplier jobs in the region. Up to 200 new employees may be required when forward plans are running at full tilt in the North-east.

He also views the Government’s £5m Regional Selective Assistance contribution – announced by Secretary of State for Trade and Industry Patricia Hewitt and bringing public money input to £179m compared with Nissan’s £2.2bn investment – as a vote of confidence in Sunderland.

“It shows people the Government is still interested in us,” says Dodge. “Production of the P32L is a good decision for the company given our employees’ track records of handling the complexities of manufacturing multiple vehicles. It will be a challenge to integrate this all-new model into our product mix, along with our upcoming model changes. But this is the sort of challenge any car plant would welcome.”

While he won’t be pushed on a runout plan for either Almera or Primera, Dodge expects traditional Almera buyers, and some Primera customers, to migrate towards Tone and P32L.

“The debate is continuing. There’s no decision yet on whether we want a conventional D-segment, me-too, car,” he says. “The Nissan badge looks in place on an SUV, a pick-up and a 4x4, but it doesn’t have the same appeal in the D-sector. And as for the E-sector – Maxima was not a great success.

“Fleet business is important to us, and we believe user-choosers are leading the trend towards SUVs and crossovers. That’s a trend we are responding to with new, exciting product.”

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