NISMO (Nissan Motorsport International Limited) is Nissan Motor's in-house performance program. You almost wouldn't know it in the U.S., though. While it's a big deal in Japan, over here, NISMO has been an aftermarket brand for mostly cosmetic modifications to Nissan cars, little known except among the tuner crowd.
But now Nissan is taking NISMO global, with a brand new NISMO global headquarters and skunk works in Yokohama, and an aggressive plan to roll out NISMO-badged cars around the world, starting with the Juke model. And including -- and perhaps especially -- in the U.S.
On this side of the big pond, Nissan -- most recently with its "Innovation that Excites" campaign -- has tended to define, or limit, the idea of performance to futurism and technological innovations for fuel efficiency, design, telematics and smart car functionality. Especially since the launch of the Leaf electric car.
Not that the brand has ignored performance entirely. It's just that it has focused that spotlight on digital games toward global programs like "GT Academy", where really good players of the Sony Gran Turismo game vie to be real Nissan race drivers; and product placement in games like Gameloft's Asphalt 7: Heat. The company says people "drove" Nissan vehicles more than 500 million virtual miles on gaming platforms last year.
Larry Dominique, president of TrueCar division ALG, and former VP of product planning at Nissan, says gaming is exactly the right way to talk NISMO in the U.S., given that the performance sub-brand is certainly going to appeal to younger consumers. "The fact is, this younger tuner crowd, these Millennials, are into gaming," he says, noting that it's the popularity of the Gran Turismo for Playstation that has driven the GT Academy program. "It's the younger demographic's love affair with social media, gaming, and technology tied to performance brands."
As for other brands that get the performance sub-brand, Paul Eisenstein, president of The Detroit Bureau, points to German brands BMW and Mercedes, with M and AMG, respectively. "It's clear Nissan recognizes it is losing an opportunity to turn out what could be a significant force in specialty performance." But, he adds, there's no point in doing it unless "there's full commitment."
Dominique says the two German luxury brands do it right, and are consequently able to make a premium with the vehicles, because the tuning is not just cosmetic. "They get transaction prices for M and AMG that are $5,000 to $8,000 higher." Why? One reason is what's under the hood. "If you were to do an analysis of the horsepower differences between M versus a normal BMW, you're looking at typically a 40hp to 100hp difference. That translates to a really high transaction price."
He says the meagre NISMO presence in the U.S. (when he was at the company) was never an attention grabber. "The problem was there tended to be very little engine tuning." In Japan, however, NISMO is a bona fide racing program. "And in Japan it has a strong following, with lots of derivative vehicles. It just hasn't really clicked globally."