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Market trends: Has Nissan’s niche strategy paid off?

When Nissan announced a few years ago that it would not replace the Almera or Primera in Europe, a lot of eyebrows were raised, as it seemed to be abandoning the centre ground of the car market.

While walking away from the Upper Medium segment made good sense (and is a strategy that could usefully be copied by a few others), abandoning lower medium hatchbacks was harder to understand. Nissan’s contention was that it would do better with the niche Qashqai than with another Almera. So has its strategy been successful?

The Qashqai is doing reasonably good business at around 20,000 units a year. That is less than the peak of the Almera (see table), but then it sells for a higher list price and does not have to be discounted like a Christmas tree in January. However, the Qashqai is selling about the same as lower medium MPVs like the Ford Focus C-Max or Citroën C4 Picasso (and therefore a lot less than Zafira or Scenic).

But the point is that all these MPVs are simply product-line extensions of lower medium hatchbacks – there is no great cost in making a C-Max out of a Focus. The Qashqai, although making use of the Nissan/Renault parts bin, has far less commonality with other models.

The Qashqai is a success as a niche model. It looks funky, a message reinforced by some excellent TV ads, and it can be doing the overall Nissan image no harm at all. But Nissan’s central contention, that the Qashqai makes a mainstream hatchback unnecessary, remains unproven.

Citroën, which excluding the lower medium segment has a similar overall sales to Nissan, sells around 30,000 lower medium MPVs every year plus slightly more than 18,000 hatchbacks – a combined total of almost 50,000. Thus, if Nissan had a modern hatchback competing with the Civic and Focus, would they sell much fewer Qashqais then they do now?

It is interesting to look at Nissan’s strategy in superminis, where the company has both the Micra and the Note. The Note has been a big success and is likely to be the biggest selling B-segment MPV in 2007. However, the Note has not replaced the Micra – it runs alongside it.

For Nissan to say that it does not want to compete in lower medium hatchbacks still looks a desperate policy.

How can a mainstream player not compete in Europe’s second largest segment (exceeded only by supermini hatchbacks)?

It is a bit like building a beautiful extension, without actually building the house to which it attaches.

Lower medium segment sales '07 first 9 months

The Qashqai is doing reasonably good business but it’s less than the Almera at its peak.

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