Timing is more a matter of foresight than it is a question of luck. Consider Nissan North America Inc., which is headquartered here.
Several years ago, when it was planning the U.S. introduction of its gargantuan Titan pickup truck and Armada sport-utility vehicle, Nissan also was working to expand its small-car line in America, long anchored by its compact Sentra sedan.
It was a seemingly contradictory vehicle development strategy. But it made sense in a truck-crazy market in an oil-short world.
To understand, you must accept that car companies are not charitable institutions. Nor are they social welfare organizations, political parties or havens for environmental activism. They have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies. Like all businesses, they have one permanent interest, which is to make money.
In the United States that has meant making and selling light trucks -- pickups, vans, sport-utility vehicles and all variations thereof. Trucks were 51 percent of the U.S. auto market in September 2002, 54.2 percent in September 2003, 57.9 percent in the same period in 2004 and 51.5 percent in September 2005, according to figures provided by Autodata Solutions and the Department of Energy and originally published by USA Today.
Nissan needed big trucks to haul away a bigger share of the U.S. truck market, a segment dominated by domestic manufacturers but also exploited by Japanese giant Toyota Motor Corp. For that matter, even the sensible Honda Motor Co. Ltd., long admired for its dedication to environmentally friendly automobiles, had sense enough to go after U.S. truck dollars with its Acura MDX and Honda Pilot sport-utility vehicles and, lately, its Honda Ridgeline pickup truck.
But all of those companies -- including domestics General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and the Chrysler Group of DaimlerChrysler Corp. -- are worldwide corporations dealing with global business realities. Chief among those realities are declining oil production, increasing global demand for oil and subsequent rising fuel prices.
The problem, from a corporate marketing viewpoint, is that not all consumers in all parts of the world see the same problem the same way. In some countries, such as the United States, historically awash in cheap gasoline and devoted to the pursuit of bigness, some consumers don't see the problem at all until they are slapped with things they can't ignore, such as high gasoline prices and fuel shortages.
Trying to sell a solution -- such as a smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicle -- to people who don't see a problem is a dicey deal. Many of them don't want the remedy; and those who are willing to buy it don't want to pay much for it, although it costs as much to develop a small car as it does to develop a big truck.
So, companies such as Nissan hedge their bets -- introducing a spiffy small car such as the Nissan Tiida in Europe and Asia, and selling big trucks such as the Titan and Armada in the United States.
U.S.-based car companies do the same thing. For example, the product lineup of GM of Europe, with its compact Opel Astra and Vectra cars, and its subcompact Chevrolet Lacetti, Kalos and Matiz models, looks quite different from GM's product portfolio in the United States.
But the emergence of global platform development and engineering -- the "platform" being the basic underpinnings of a given car or truck -- gives all of those companies the ability to shift products from market to market in response to changing consumer demands and what car executives call "externalities" -- the changing availability and pricing of raw materials and fuel.
Nissan currently is in the middle of a product shift in the United States. The company will keep rolling out its big Titan and Armada trucks. Even with the price of unleaded regular gasoline topping $3 a gallon, sales of those models were up 20 percent in September over September 2004, said John E. Connelly, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Nissan North America.
"After all, there continues to be a need for the hauling, towing and people-carrying capacity of vehicles like the Titan and Armada, even if gas prices are high," Connelly said. But Nissan isn't foolish about being fuelish. "We are concerned about continuing high gas prices and the long-term impact on large trucks and SUVs," Connelly said.
As a result, Nissan is planning to bring the small Tiida car to the United States as the Versa compact hatchback and sedan. The new car, which will be introduced as a 2007 model -- going on sale in early 2006 -- will be slotted below the Sentra, which will move a bit upscale in size and content.
The Versa, which will get 38 miles per gallon using a fuel-efficient continuously variable transmission, will start at $12,000, according to Connelly and other Nissan officials. The car likely will be equipped with a four-cylinder, 120-horsepower engine. But if it is anything like the Tiida model I drove all over the Los Angeles area over the weekend, being fuel-efficient and relatively inexpensive does not mean the Versa will look or feel cheap.
The tested Tiida had high-quality interior materials, lots of room for four adults and commendable road performance. Nissan officials say the U.S. version, the Versa, will match that model.
Toyota is plans to take the same tack with the U.S. introduction of its little Yaris car, now on sale in Europe and Asia; and Honda is rolling out more fuel-efficient Civics and a new model, the subcompact Fit, to compete.
GM, Ford and Chrysler will not be left behind in the small-car race, assuming that such a contest actually develops in the United States. GM is offering a much-improved version of its Chevrolet Aveo for 2007, sourced from its Asian operations. Ford will strengthen its small-car lineup, now anchored by the Focus; and the on-again, off-again U.S. introduction of the little Smart car, a DaimlerChrysler product, now looks like it will be on again, possibly with Smart models sold separately or in conjunction with Chrysler products.
Still, no one in the industry is ready to declare a small-car revolution in the United States, or to concede the demise of big trucks, even though sales of those models were seriously dented in September. Current industry thinking is that the truck poseurs -- people who buy for ego more than need -- are dropping out.
But the betting is that the truck dropouts will return, and abandon any small cars they bought in the interim, if gasoline prices stabilize or somehow begin a long-term decline.
Nothing lasts forever in the automotive industry. Products rise. Products fall. And the fallen, as was the case with small cars, rise again. "History tends to repeat itself," Connelly said. "You have to be ready."