Volume no longer a dirty word as Nissan looks to grow again

Volume no longer a dirty word as Nissan looks to grow again



324,893 cars were built at Sunderland last year, led by the Qashqai and Juke

After its last 'flawed' plan didn't work, the Japanese firm's new plan targets sales quality over quantity

Nissan’s new Arc global mid-term plan carrying it to 2026 included a promise that we haven’t heard from a manufacturer for a while: it wanted to lift annual sales by a million.

The announcement last week included an admission by CEO Makoto Uchida that the mid-term plan it succeeded, called Nissan Next, had a flaw.

The goal of increasing volumes used to be staple of car makers’ forward-looking plans, but in recent years it has become unfashionable, replaced instead by the now well-worn phrase ‘value over volume’.

That mindset preferred sales quality over quantity, removing discounting in favour of selling better-equipped models for higher prices. Volumes were sacrificed for increased profit margins, or so the theory went.

That was achievable during the post-Covid supply chain shortages, when no one could build enough cars to meet demand, thereby raising average selling prices.

The problem in the longer term, however, is that unless you can shrink your factory network to meet the lower sales volumes, the unused production capacity becomes a lead weight on profits.

Uchida praised the work done on profit margins during Nissan Next (they went from underwater during the pandemic then rose to 5.2% in the nine months to the end of December 2023) while also pointing out the plan’s “flaw”.

“With our focus on quality of sales and financial discipline, we were able to achieve strong profit levels. However, our volume remained flat.” Uchida said at the Arc event. “Therefore, in order to ensure steady progress, we would like to boost the fundamental volume.”

Nissan’s sales volumes have fallen substantially over the past decade or so. In the 2015 financial year, ending March 2016, it sold 5.4 million vehicles. In the current financial year, ending in March, it predicts it will sell 3.5m, up from 3.3m the previous year.

Under former CEO Carlos Ghosn, Nissan was a firm believer in production scale – build more, sell more and discount if you need to stimulate growth.

Ultimately, Ghosn believed, the margins would come from the manufacturing efficiency of having plants humming along at full strength. It worked for a while, but his targets were too ambitious, leading to model failures like the lacklustre Nissan Pulsar family hatchback.

Created to deal with plummet in sales in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, the Nissan Next plan called for a reduction in the company’s production capacity to 5.4m vehicles, down from a whopping 7.2m in 2019. That it achieved, partly from restructuring or closing plants, including that in Barcelona.

Nissan is still running under capacity on production volume, but instead of closing more plants, it intends to fill them again. Right now its factories worldwide are running at just 68% capacity including its underperforming Chinese plants or 78% excluding them, the firm said.

By boosting volumes by another million globally, Nissan believes it can run at 91% capacity, helping it achieve 6% margin by 2026 then 8% by 2030.

The surest way of lifting sales of course is that old volume-boosting prop: discounting. Nissan's chief financial officer, Stephen Ma, told investors in the February earnings call that the firm was aiming to boost sales by a further 40,000 in Europe from January to the end of March “by ensuring competitiveness in pricing, incentives and through intensified marketing efforts”.

This is good news for the UK, home of Nissan’s only European plant, in the UK. At its height 10 years ago, Sunderland was more than 500,000 cars annually, but it went into a steep decline until that figure had more than halved, with just 204,552 cars made in 2021.

Now, however, Sunderland is back on track, with 324,893 cars built in 2023, led by the Qashqai and Juke – a figure that was up 36% on 2022, according to figures from UK industry body the SMMT.

Of that 1m sales increase by 2026, 300,000 will come from the region that includes Europe, Nissan said.

The potential stumbling block for this is the update of Nissan’s EV range. The company will launch five new electric models in Europe by the end of the 2026 financial year, including the Leaf replacement (expected next year), the next Juke, the new Renault-built Micra replacement and two vans.

The Juke and Leaf will be built at Sunderland as part of the plant’s EV360 overhaul that includes a new on-site battery facility.

However, Nissan has rowed back slightly on a promise made last year that all future launches will be electric. The Arc plan includes a commitment that Nissan’s third-generation e-Power hybrid system – a key plank of the firm's global growth plan – will be launched in Europe.

Whether that means the new e-Power system will be installed in a Sunderland product or an imported model, we don’t know, but it reflects Nissan’s observation that the move to electric is lumpy.

“We would like to introduce EVs in many markets, but the market speed is becoming uncertain,” Uchida said.

To ensure more consistent profitability amid the falling price of EVs, mainly in China, it unveiled a range of programmes to cut the cost of development, materials and production. For example, it will introduce a new platform for five separate models from 2027 that will cut research and development costs by half and shorten development time by four months.

Nissan also said it would introduce a new production system that in the presentation looked similar to Tesla’s planned ‘unboxed’ method, in which modules are assembled separately before coming together in a final burst of manufacturing efficiency, reducing production time by a fifth.

Nissan will also introduce new, cheaper lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) battery chemistry to complement its preferred nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) option.

It's also sticking to its promised 2028 start date for the launch of an EV using breakthrough solid-state battery technology with much greater energy density.

To facilitate its plan, Nissan needs strong customer acceptance for its new EVs in the shift to electric.

“The real big question with our new product is how successful are they going to be? I've learned over the years, it's extremely difficult to predict,” Nissan’s head of European production, Alan Johnson, told Autocar late last year. “Sometimes you’re too optimistic. Sometimes too pessimistic. Very rarely do you get it right.”

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