Nissan Motor Co., seeking to outsell smaller Honda Motor Co. in the pivotal U.S. market, unveiled a new Maxima sedan this week at the New York International Auto Show that may also draw customers from premium brands.
The 2016 Maxima, a sleek, sporty four-door, goes on sale this summer, starting at $32,410 — $1,120 more than the current base model. The new Maxima will come in five trim levels, including a premium Platinum model for about $40,000.
Japan's second-largest automaker is looking for the new Maxima to build on the success of the brand's crossover utility vehicles in boosting sales volumes and competing for customers with higher-end makes. U.S. sales of the Rogue subcompact sport utility vehicle rose 41 percent in March and the redesigned mid- sized Murano is bringing in more affluent buyers, said Derrick Hatami, vice president of sales for Nissan North America.
"We've been very successful in attracting luxury buyers," he said. "Preliminary data on Murano suggests we're getting more trade-ins from luxury brands. The next one is Maxima. There are a lot of very interesting improvements that we think will attract a different new type of buyer to Nissan. We have very high hopes for that model."
The new Maxima is lower, longer and lighter, chief executive Carlos Ghosn said Thursday morning in an interview with Bloomberg. The new Maxima is 82 pounds (37 kilograms) lighter, letting the 300-horsepower car cruise down the highway at 30 miles (48 kilometers) per gallon, he said.
Ghosn said on Thursday that he isn't concerned with how Nissan does against other automakers. In February, though, Jose Munoz, Nissan's head of North American operations, said he expected to beat Honda month after month.
Last year, Nissan cut its deficit to Honda almost in half, boosting its sales 11 percent to 1.39 million while its rival's sales rose just 1 percent to 1.54 million. Through March, Nissan has topped Honda in each month and now leads by 33,685 sales. Last year at this time, Nissan led Honda by 29,612, so a full- year triumph is hardly assured.
Nissan has gained ground on the strength of its Rogue, sales of which jumped 28 percent through March after rising 22 percent for all of 2014. It's now a top-five seller in one of the hottest segments in the auto industry. Cars have also helped: Nissan's Altima was the fourth best-selling car in the U.S. last year, topping Honda's compact Civic.
Honda revealed a new Civic concept Wednesday at the New York show that John Mendel, executive vice president of Honda's U.S. sales unit, said brings more focus on sporty design and handling.
Mendel said much of Nissan's progress has come by selling to rental-car companies and other fleet buyers. Such bulk sales are less profitable for the automaker and can inflate volumes at the expense of profit. Honda shuns such sales, which is rare for a mass-market automaker, a point that Mendel stressed with reporters on Wednesday.
"I'm really tired of going to their press conferences and hearing 'Honda' 15 times," Mendel said. "I'm flattered, but they don't do the business we do. They want to juice their business by 28 to 30 percent fleet every month. That's their business. But then don't compare it to individual customers who pay their own money for an individual car."
Nissan said fleet purchases as a percent of sales have declined this year while fleet sales for the industry have increased. Nissan's U.S. fleet sales in March fell 17 percent, Munoz told reporters Thursday in New York. For the first three months of 2015, they fell 4 percent. Nissan's growth has been based on retail sales, he said.
Ghosn added that his goal is reaching at least 10 percent market share, regardless of what Honda does.
"Our objective is not to overtake anybody," Ghosn said to reporters in New York. "The objective is to reach 10 percent market share and continue to grow. Whoever is behind is behind and whoever is in front is in front. I think the market is open. It's not owned by anybody."
While Nissan has made some upscale moves with its mainstream brand, the company has also increased incentives, according to information compiled by researcher Autodata Corp. Nissan's spending on promotions per vehicle sold rose 16 percent in the first quarter to an average of $3,114 — higher than the $3,053 average for traditional U.S. brands, as well as Honda's $1,794 and Toyota's $1,851.
Nissan argues that its discounts look inflated because it passes through to lessees federal incentives of as much as $7,500 for sales of electric cars. Sales of the company's Leaf electric car rose 34 percent last year before sliding 21 percent in this year's first quarter.
"They took the decision to be more aggressive with pricing," Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting at LMC Automotive in Southfield, Michigan. "It's been a slow climb and that's how they've stayed really off the radar. Honda, meanwhile, has quietly been in the background treading water."
The Maxima should give at least a short-term spark to Nissan's refurbished lineup in a full-size sedan segment that's fallen out of favor with consumers, Michelle Krebs, senior analyst at AutoTrader.com, said in an interview.
"Automakers are refreshing their full-sized cars, but that segment is just dwindling," Krebs said. "I suspect Maxima will do well initially. Something new captures some market share in that segment but it doesn't grow the segment, and newness doesn't last long."
Nissan increased the Maxima's technology as well. A navigation system is standard on all trim levels. Safety features such as forward collision warning and forward emergency braking are standard on the three priciest versions.
The new Maxima should attract a wealthier, more male customer base than the current version does, Hatami said. He also expects it to win customers from luxury brands including Honda's Acura and Nissan's own Infiniti.
"When you look at the vehicle from the perspective of the styling and technology in there, and performance heritage, we're going to see a different Maxima buyer when it's launched," Hatami said.