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Nissan swerves into Tesla's lane, driven by new Ariya electric

Crossover SUV is part of carmaker's brand revamp after Ghosn

Nissan CEO Makoto Uchida presented the Ariya at an online launch Wednesday. (Screenshot from Nissan Website) 

TOKYO -- Nissan Motor has unveiled its first new electric car in a decade, part of an overhaul of its lineup and strategy that the financially stretched Japanese automaker hopes will help it regain its luster after steep losses.

The reception for the Ariya, which will go on sale next year, will be the first test of how Nissan is shifting from its approach under former chairman Carlos Ghosn, who led the company into a fight for global market share. Makoto Uchida, who took over as CEO last year, wants Nissan to target higher product and sales quality after a net loss of 671 billion yen ($6.2 billion) for the year ended March, its worst result in 20 years.

"Nissan is still not at the level it should be," Uchida said at Wednesday's launch, describing the Ariya as "Nissan's new face" which offers the carmaker's best driving experience.

The Ariya, the first all-electric crossover SUV from the Japanese carmaker, has a maximum range of 610 kilometers, and the new EV powertrain enables charging up to for a range of 375 kilometers in 30 minutes. The Ariya can accelerate to a speed of 100 kilometers per hour in just 5.1 seconds, on par with iconic Nissan sports car Fairlady Z. It goes on sale in mid-2021 in Japan with a price from around 5 million yen ($46,000).

The Ariya is Nissan's first new electric vehicle in 10 years, excluding the Chinese business. Nissan's first all-electric vehicle, the Leaf hatchback, was launched in 2010 as the first mass-produced EV. The company sold 470,000 Leaf vehicles.

"People were skeptical about electric vehicles then," Uchida added. "But now, many automakers have launched them." He reiterated that Nissan's abundant big data for electric vehicle enabled it to develop a new EV-dedicated platform. "Unlimited possibilities, kick started by the Ariya, will emerge from this platform," he said.

At the event Nissan also introduced a new brand logo, which will be first used on the Ariya. Nissan shares rose 8.5% at one stage on Wednesday in anticipation of the launch.

Electric and hybrid vehicles are a key part of the strategy revamp at Nissan, which is part of a Franco-Japanese alliance with Renault and Mitsubishi Motors.

The carmaker said in May that it plans to launch 12 new models in the coming 18 months and plans to put at least eight pure electric models on the market by March 2024.

Outdated models compared with those of its competitors have alienated Nissan's dealers and customers worldwide. The carmaker sold just 4.93 million cars in its fiscal through March, down 15% from its peak two years ago. Uchida announced in May that the company would focus on its core models by reducing the overall number to less than 55 from the 69 it had in fiscal 2018. It also said it would renew car life cycles every four years.

On the other hand, the company will cut production capacity by 20% and close its plants in Indonesia -- a market which had been deemed strategic under Ghosn as the Brazil-born tycoon aimed to boost production in emerging countries to lift sales. Nissan's massive annual loss last fiscal year was generated by 603 billion yen in costs associated with restructuring and impairment.

Other automobile players are also shifting resources to the electric car market. Honda Motor announced last week it bought a 1% stake in Chinese electric vehicle battery maker Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL) to jointly develop batteries for electric cars. Daimler subsidiary Mercedes-Benz also announced a strategic and capital tie-up with Chinese automotive battery maker Farasis Energy (Ganzhou).

The electric vehicle market is attracting global attention, as demonstrated by Tesla. The company's market capitalization surpassed industry giant Toyota Motor's even with annual sales of only around 370,000 vehicles. While Europe is witnessing a surge in demand fueled by environmental regulations, analysts believe electric cars still need more time to expand in Asia and become profitable mainly due to their high battery cost.

Nissan has adopted a simple and futuristic new logo to revamp its brand image, aiming to catch up with EV leader Tesla. (Source photo by Reuters and screenshot from Nissan Website) 

Bolstered in recent years by government incentives, China grew into the world's largest electric car market. But the government slashed subsidies and the market has been on a declining trend since the second half of 2019.

In Japan, electric cars, including plug-in hybrids, only accounted for 0.9% of total domestic vehicle sales in 2019, according to the International Energy Agency, well below China's 4.9% and 2.1% in the U.S.

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