Nissan's eye on design

Times Staff Writer

Nissan Motor Co. is riding high on a wave of hot new products these days, but it isn't resting on its laurels. The company plans to increase its U.S. design staff by about 25% in the next year as part of an estimated $250-million global push to further improve its research and design.

Although Nissan's U.S. sales, distribution and marketing operations are run from Nissan North America headquarters in Gardena, the U.S. design operation is a separate company, La Jolla-based Nissan Design America.

Most of the design unit's 82 employees work in La Jolla, with a couple rotating though a satellite studio in San Francisco and 16 stationed with the Nissan Technical Center in Farmington Hills, Mich., near Detroit.

The company plans to add two or three designers to the La Jolla staff as part of the expansion, Nissan spokesman Scott Vazin said, but the bulk of the new hires will be in Michigan. The Farmington Hills studio is being enlarged and employment will more than double by the end of the year, Vazin said.

The Michigan studio concentrates on the annual chore of freshening the look of Nissan vehicles between the so-called lifecycle remodelings that occur every few years when significant new engineering and design changes are made.

Globally, Nissan is preparing to introduce 28 new or redesigned models during the next two years. It is expected to spend about $2.5 billion on research and design in its fiscal year beginning in April, up from $2.25 billion this year.

In the U.S., the company already has introduced new versions of the Sentra and Altima sedans as well as the new 350Z sports car, the Murano crossover sport utility vehicle and the Infiniti G35 sedan and coupe.

This year Nissan will launch a new Maxima, a new Quest minivan, the Infiniti FX crossover SUV and the new Nissan Titan full-size pickup and a full-size SUV. Most of the U.S. market vehicles were designed in La Jolla.

Enter the armored town cars

As it seeks to reverse its sliding fortunes, Ford Motor Co. is looking in all sorts of places for additional revenue. With the threat of terrorist activity hanging heavy in the U.S., one niche market is the one for armored vehicles -- not the kind that haul sacks of cash to the local ATM but vehicles that transport well-heeled executives worried about kidnapping and assassination.

It's a world that Mercedes-Benz, BMW, General Motors Corp. and a few others have had pretty much to themselves for a long time.

But now Ford says demand for armored cars is rising, and it plans to enter the segment with a bullet-resistant version of its Lincoln Town Car sedan, already a favored vehicle in the limousine business.

A regular Town Car sells for about $40,000, and adding armor would boost that to $140,000 or so. Final pricing has not been set.

Ford spokesman Mike Vaughn said worldwide demand for armored passenger vehicles has risen steadily, from 4,000 in 1995 to 18,000 last year.

The armored Town Cars, to be called the Lincoln Town Car Ballistic Protection Series, will use bullet-resistant ceramic, steel and fiber armoring as well as run-flat tires and bullet-resistant glass.

Ford intends to begin production this year and will ship limousine versions of Town Cars made at its Wixom, Mich., plant to International Armoring Corp. in Ogden, Utah, where they will be equipped with armor and additional protection, Vaughn said.

Ford expects U.S. sales to account for about 70% of its armored car business, but wouldn't say how many of the cars it expects to sell. Sales of regular Lincoln Town Cars declined 11% last year to slightly more than 59,000 units.

Luxury car sales flourish in '02

Despite worries about the economy, luxury car sales continued to climb in 2002 -- and Southern California has been one of the hotbeds. Some of the biggest Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Lexus dealerships in the country are located here. (Cadillac and Lincoln do better in the Midwest, but Southern California's luxury market is dominated by import brands.)

The official roll of the top dealerships is published each year by Ward's Dealer Business, and the magazine's 2002 list isn't out yet. But BMW and Mercedes-Benz have provided an early peek by anointing their top franchises:

Crevier BMW in Santa Ana was Bayerische Motoren Werke's top volume dealer in the U.S. for 2002, and Fletcher Jones Motorcars in Newport Beach hung on to its title as the top Mercedes-Benz dealership in the country.

Don Crevier, president and co-owner with his father, Robert, of Crevier BMW, says business has grown in virtually every one of the 31 years the dealership has been around.

In 2002, the dealership moved 2,600 new Bimmers, 1,000 used models and 400 Mini Coopers. Crevier said that although he has heard "a few horror stories" about the baths that customers took in the flailing stock market, the economy has not affected car-buying habits. He said that about 65% of Crevier's business is from referrals and repeat customers, and he credits both BMW's lineup and the quality of his staff for the dealership's success.

Fletcher Jones Motorcars said sales last year grew to $463 million -- an 8% increase over 2001 -- representing 6,888 new and used Mercedes-Benz vehicles.

Part of the company's sales boom, General Manager Garth Blumenthal says, came from the introduction last year of several models of the C-Class cars with starting prices under $30,000. But growth also came from sales of more expensive models such as the SL500 roadster, which starts at $84,000, and the G500 sport utility, which starts at $73,000.

Toyota takes a poke at incentives

And while on the subject of car sales: Toyota Motor Sales USA Chief Operating Officer Jim Press drew a big laugh, and raised a few eyebrows, when he blasted the flood of incentives that have helped some automakers post big sales gains.

"There are two ways to gain market share," Press said last week to a roomful of automotive writers in Palm Springs during a program previewing the forthcoming 2004 Toyota Sienna minivan.

"One is to put out a car that people don't want, and then pay them to buy it. The other is build good cars that people want" and will buy without incentives.

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