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Automotives: Nissan's new vehicles make for a mind-boggling display

SAN FRANCISCO -- As new-car introductions go, Nissan put on a mind-boggling display, gathering all of its worldwide vehicles for 2005 in San Francisco, then bringing in 12 waves of journalists from global outposts such as North America, Europe, S...

SAN FRANCISCO -- As new-car introductions go, Nissan put on a mind-boggling display, gathering all of its worldwide vehicles for 2005 in San Francisco, then bringing in 12 waves of journalists from global outposts such as North America, Europe, South America, Central America, Australia, Asia, the Middle East, and beyond, for an event called Nissan 360.

It made sense, because Nissan sells more than three million vehicles in 190 countries and has 27 plants in 18 countries. So instead of holding separate introductory sessions in all corners of the world, Nissan brought everything and everybody to one site for a three-week extravaganza of test drives and displays. About 70 different vehicles were available to be driven by more than 500 journalists. There were so many vehicles that the full day of trying to drive as many cars and trucks as possible required some astute note-taking to keep things sorted out as we drove short and long courses from two base sites north of San Francisco, just across the Golden Gate Bridge.

Some of the unusual and previously unseen vehicles might someday come to the U.S. There were powerful gasoline engines, economical gasoline engines, hybrid vehicles, fuel-cell vehicles and diesel engine cars, and they ranged in size from subcompact to compact to midsize, to extremely long and slinky cars, sports cars, small trucks, large trucks, SUVs, and an array of vans from mini to maxi.

Most mind-blowing were a couple of cars altered by Nissan's "Nismo" high-performance arm, including a flashy, laser-striped 350Z and a Sentra SE-R, which just happened to be the first two vehicles I leaped into. I also enjoyed an X-Trail, which isn't sold in the United States, but is the Xterra equivalent sold in Europe, Canada and Japan.

The most intriguing real-world vehicle in the whole batch was something called the Micra. It is a small car, subcompact in exterior dimensions, but fully capable of housing four full-sized people and a trunk. It appears perfectly placed to capitalize on the current trend back to smaller commuter vehicles with maximum fuel efficiency, in order to cope with fuel prices that keep escalating above and beyond $2 per gallon.

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Nissan showed off three varieties of a car called the Cube, which are starkly styled, square-back vehicles that also are pretty square-front. I enjoyed heckling some Nissan executives from Japan about showing off that Nissan has a square little vehicle before Toyota created the Scion xB.

But the Micra was my favorite. It is sold in Europe and also in Japan as the March, blending the ongoing relationship Nissan of Japan has enjoyed with Renault of France. Their connection is referred to as "the Alliance" and is an arrangement by which Renault now owns 44 percent of Nissan, while Nissan also owns 15 percent of Renault. Obviously, the two companies are sharing basic vehicle platforms, manufacturing facilities and powertrains, to say nothing of ideas.

Since the Alliance came into effect, consider the all-new products from Nissan, such as the 350Z, the renewed Altima and Maxima, and entirely new Quest minivan, Titan pickup truck and Armada SUV, to say nothing of all the new Infiniti models. Japanese officials steadfastly insist that there is no French input on the styling of those vehicles, but nobody can say they don't all have a stylish flair -- as do the cars Renault is now building for its European customers.

The 360 event name obviously refers to the number of degrees to go all the way around the world. "But 360 also indicates Nissan has come full circle as a company," said Tadao Takahashi, Nissan's executive vice president of manufacturing. "We're back as one of the world's leading automakers. We've eliminated our debt, which has significantly improved our flexibility."

The worldly nature of automotives means Nissan sold 3,057,000 cars a year ago, including 856,000 in U.S. sales, 837,000 in Japan, and 542,000 in Europe. In the U.S., Nissan just had the best May sales in its history, selling 87,000 vehicles for a 28 percent increase over May 2003. But while expanding, it also is streamlining its production, introducing 28 new models from 2005 to 2007 while also cutting down from 24 different platforms of five years ago to 15 by the end of this year.

We can anticipate that the Cube will come to the United States, and we can only hope the Micra makes it, too. I've always enjoyed the agility of driving smaller cars, to say nothing of the economy, but I also have always wondered why most economy cars are made of such chintzy pieces. I mean, why can't small-car buyers get some of the great features of larger cars? Just because you want economy, efficiency and ease of maneuvering and parking doesn't mean you don't want a fancy audio system and great seats.

Alfonso Albaisa, the fellow who was chief designer of the Quest and is now design director for Nissan, read my mind. "Nissan is a sporty company," Albaisa said. "When it came to planning the new Altima, we thought, 'Why does a sedan have to be boring?' When we built the Quest, minivans were utility boxes, but we wanted to make it sexy, because women didn't want to drive vans anymore. Now look at the Micra, which has keyless entry, and rain-sensing wipers -- it's a small car, but it has great features."

I drove two Micras, one of which had a gasoline engine and was peppy and fun to drive. The other one, a sort of lima-bean green -- a color almost as unappetizing as the descriptive vegetable, I must say -- was powered by a 1.5-liter turbodiesel with a five-speed stick shift. It was quick, agile and thoroughly enjoyable to drive in all circumstances.

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It also was clean, didn't smell foul and didn't smoke or clatter the way we remember a lot of diesels. I found out later that Nissan had imported European diesel fuel, which is far cleaner than the stuff we are forced to buy. Ah, but as of 2006, our diesel fuel will have to drop to 15 parts per million of sulfur content, from about 340 parts per million now. So the Micra has a chance to be Nissan's rounded Mini Cooper.

Nissan, it turns out, built three different diesel engines for its global outlets, while Renault had five or six. Since their alliance, Nissan has quit making diesels, yielding to Renault's expertise, and while Nissans now use Renault diesels, Renault buys Nissan's fantastic 3.5-liter V6.

Among other impressive drives, I had brief tours in three different X-Trail models, with gasoline, diesel and fuel-cell power. I also drove an Altima hybrid, which will be out in about a year using the technology licensed from Toyota, with a Nissan engine, until Nissan can complete its own hybrid technology. There also was a long, sleek sedan called the Teana, which is sold in Japan and had a continuously-variable transmission that could manually be shifted through eight gear-stops. That was one of several right-hand steering vehicles I drove, which was an adventure on two-lane California roads in the mountains.

But the Micra remained the vehicle that most impressed me, as it sailed up the hill from Sausalito, to the upper reaches of the Headlands, where the car's smooth, turbo-power was interrupted only when I stopped to enjoy the panoramic view of San Francisco, over the Golden Gate Bridge. From the looks of things, Nissan's outlook is just as impressive.

John Gilbert writes weekly auto columns and can be reached at jgilbert@duluth.com .

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