Successfully building a small car with big sales is one of the last adventures in the Industrial Age. It needs to be planned, executed and financed better than Magellan’s circumnavigation of the Earth. It is a perilous journey, as many old and new wrecks attest.
Today, Nissan’s reconstituted Datsun brand released a first sketch of an unnamed “new Datsun concept car, which will have its world premiere at Delhi Auto Expo.” That’s about the extent of Datsun’s cryptic communique. So here a little fill-in-the blanks.
This (not necessarily definitive) sketch shows a very low-cost car, built on Renault/Nissan’s new CMF-A modular architecture. This small car can become very big.
I have followed the gestation of this car for more than year, from first whispers about an ultra low-cost car out of the Renault/Nissan camp, all the way to a pilgrimage to a sweltering Chennai, India, where I met the car’s father.
Gérard Detourbet is the man who converted Dacia from a not very impressive toy of a Rumanian dictator into a nightmare for other European automakers. Last year, Dacia was Europe’s fastest growing car brand, it gained 23.3 percent in an overall down market. And the Dacias are making money, much to the chagrin of the followers of “big cars, big profits – small cars, no profit.”
In Chennai, Detourbet fulfills an old dream. “I dreamt of building a smaller car, smaller than the smallest car we have in the Alliance,” Detourbet told me in Chennai. Little boys dream of big cars, once they mature, they begin to explore the making of little things.
The making of small cars is a dizzying Rubik’s Cube of interlocked, but nonetheless often conflicting factors. It is much harder to engineer a small car than a luxobarge. Components want to be brought down to bonsai-size, while leaving space for the buyer plus family. The car needs to comply with all modern safety standards, which, Newton is alive, demand a good deal more engineering moxie than building a tank, or its automotive derivatives. Finally, you must sell a whole lot of these small cars to recoup your investment. It also helps if the car is engineered by ascets.
“The best way to reduce the cost of a car is to reduce the number of its parts,” Detourbet told me. “You get a car that costs less to engineer, it is easier to assemble, and it has less to go wrong.” For that, Detourbet is on a daily hunt for the superfluous complexity. Where other air conditioners have a multitude of knobs and buttons, Detourbet’s A/C only has one knob. Detourbet uses the same rear view mirror on the left and the right. ”Engineers create a lot of things that are never used by the customer, they don’t make cars for the customer, they make cars for themselves. The secret is to make what is expected, by the customer, and not more.”
The frugal new Datsun is built using Renault/Nissan’s CMF architecture, where the car is divided into five modules, as Renault’s Engineering Chief Jean-Michel Billig told me from Paris: “Engine compartment, front underbody, rear underbody, cockpit and the electronic architecture, each with between one and three big modules to choose from.”
CMF is split into three families. CMF-A, developed by Detourbet, is the basis for the Alliance’s entry level and sub-mini models. CMF-B will be for cars the size of a Renault Clio, CMF-C/D will buttress vehicles the size of the Nissan Rogue, Qashqai and X-Trail, or Renault Espace, Scénic and Laguna.
A concept delivering broad strokes of the upcoming CMF-A low-cost offering will be shown at the Delhi Auto Show in early February. Market launch is expected by 2015.
The question remains of course: At what price?
This is treated as a state secret at Renault/Nissan. Simultaneous CEO Carlos Ghosn has a favorite shtick: He goads members of the media with a “the price of the car will not be far from the entry competitor.” He then asks what that price would be, and gets many differing answers. Whereupon he waves his arms, and says: “See, see!”
The guesses are around $5,000, or maybe €5,000 – options not included. Using India as a hub, the car is targeted at the emerging markets. This is where the growth is, and this is also where $5,000 is not low-cost. “It won’t be a car on a 25 year old platform that was amortized several times already,” Ghosn promised in Chennai. “It will be totally modern, totally new.”
We will keep an eye on the little one for you.