+++ Although a recent report suggested that INFINITI won’t build an AMG/M/RS contender anytime soon, that doesn’t mean the company will stop developing sportier models altogether. Currently, the most powerful car offered by the Japanese car maker is the 400 hp, 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged Q60 Coupe.
In an interview with Carbuzz, though, Francois Bancon, Infiniti’s VP of Product Planning, confirmed that another, sportier model is currently in the pipeline. Maybe it won’t compete against Germany’s finest, but Mr. Bancon believes it will be beneficial for Infiniti’s line-up. Moreover, the official revealed that “2 to 3 possibilities” are being discussed at this stage, referencing “high power outputs and EV tech”. That means the future model – regardless of its shape and size – could come with a hybridized powertrain. To make matters even more interesting, Bancon suggested that Infiniti doesn’t (necessarily) expect to break even with such a car, accepting a business loss on every model made for the sake of creating a no-compromise offering that wouldn’t be perceived as “a joke”. A timescale of the model’s launch hasn’t been disclosed, but Infiniti will reportedly start working on the car once it has the means to make it truly incredible, and on par with the brand’s standards. Let’s just hope it won’t take too long. +++
+++ NISSAN CEO Carlos Ghosn is known for being ruthless when it comes to shedding dead weight. In a company that has shifted so much of its focus towards cars that can sell in great volumes, it may then seem unusual for “Le Cost Killer” to acknowledge the importance of sports cars. Speaking with Roadshow at the Paris Motor Show this week, Ghosn admitted that he does not see the sales potential of sports cars. However, he said that he does value them as “flagships” and as “a testimony of technology and of the brand”. It didn’t take long for Ghosn’s calculated logic to reveal itself, though, saying, “Premium cars and sports cars probably represent 90 percent of the media coverage, even though they represent 10 percent of the sales of the industry”. So while sports cars may not make strict economical sense, Ghosn is still willing to entertain them: “Nissan is going to continue to develop sports cars because it’s so important for the storytelling”. Of course, Nissan has a rich history of performance cars, including such classics as the 200 SX, 240ZX and Skyline GT-R to name a few. Currently, only 2 remain — the 370Z and GT-R — and both are getting long in the tooth, having been around for 8 years. +++
+++ Like the previous generation, the PORSCHE Panamera 4 E-Hybrid that was launched at the Paris Auto Show uses a turbocharged V6 and an electric motor to move about, but it might be joined by a beefier version. A previous report from Motor Trend had suggested that Porsche is cooking “a 918 with back seats” that would borrow the 918’s high-performance hybrid technology. That model could be far more ordinary than originally thought. The reason is that, according to Auto Express, Porsche CEO Oliver Blume revealed the German car maker is considering a faster variant of the second-gen hybrid Panamera, which could feature the same 4.0-litre V8 as the Turbo and the upcoming Turbo S. Since the Panamera 4 E-Hybrid already boasts a power output of 462 HP and 700 Nm of torque, the V8 variant could go as high as 700 hp and 800 Nm. The powertrain, mated with an 8-speed PDK gearbox, should be enough to propel the car from 0 to 100 km/h in about 3,5 seconds and all the way to a top speed of 305 km/h. Significantly faster than the current hybrid’s 4.6 seconds and 278 km/h respective figures. Even though he described the combination of a high-performance engine and electric motors as “attractive”, Blume said there are no current plans to introduce a hybrid 911, Boxster or Cayman. So, unless Weissach has something entirely different in mind, this really leaves only one candidate, doesn’t it? +++
+++ RENAULT-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has promised that the alliance partners will break into the top3 in global vehicle sales by as early as 2018, leaving either Toyota, General Motors or Volkswagen Group in the fourth place position currently occupied by the French-Japanese automaker. A lot has changed since Ghosn made that commitment in 2014. The UK, which is a production hub and key sales market for Nissan, has decided to exit the European Union. Sales in China, where Renault has only recently established a foothold, are slowing. Big expansion plans in Russia and Brazil, Renault’s second-largest market after Europe, have so far failed to pan out as deep recessions have caused car demand to collapse in both markets. New opportunities are also emerging though. Because of models such as the new Kwid, Renault is the top-selling European automaker in India, where roughly a dozen brands compete fiercely over the remaining third of the market not controlled by Maruti Suzuki and Hyundai. Renault is also in advanced talks to “considerably intensify” its operations in Iran now that sanctions have been lifted. The Middle East’s largest car market is forecast to grow 10 percent a year to reach 2 million vehicles by 2020. It looks as if the only thing that can help the alliance break into a coveted top3 spot in global car sales is its planned acquisition of a 34 percent stake in Mitsubishi, which has been hurt since admitting in April that the company cheated on fuel economy tests. That stake would give Renault-Nissan de facto control over its scandal-hit rival and put the combined global sales volume of the larger alliance in the same range as Toyota and VW Group. “We have the potential to be in the top3”, Ghosn said in May during a press conference to announce his plans to spend $2.2 billion to bail out Mitsubishi. Given that Renault-Nissan, which includes those namesake brands plus Alpine, Dacia, Datsun, Infiniti, AvtoVAZ’s Lada and Samsung, sold a combined 8.5 million vehicles last year, it needs a game-changing move like the Mitsubishi deal or another significant merger or acquisition to have a legitimate chance of joining the 10-million-unit-a-year club. A deal of that proportion, however, can present some big issues. While a pro-forma addition of volumes is common in such transactions, IHS Automotive principal analyst Ian Fletcher’s estimates still treat Renault-Nissan and Mitsubishi as stand-alone companies, at least until the point when the deal goes through. When asked about the potential risks and rewards from Renault-Nissan’s planned deal with Mitsubishi, Fletcher said: “It could be positive but equally it could be negative. Decisions that may be taken by Renault-Nissan and Mitsubishi include pushing back replacement vehicles to gain greater synergies, deciding not to move forward with some models or adding vehicles, which Mitsubishi may not have been able to afford to develop alone”. The question is whether the alliance, and Ghosn as its dual CEO, might be stretching itself too thin. While Nissan is on course to purchase a third of money-losing Mitsubishi, the alliance, which spent over 2 billion euros to take control of AvtoVAZ, needs to participate in an 85 billion ruble (1.16 billion euro) recapitalization of the struggling Russian automaker. Although the alliance says synergies between Renault and Nissan totaled 4.3 billion euros last year — a figure that is not independently verifiable — analysts feel progress among legacy brands has been slow. Dominic O’Brien of Exane BNP Paribas sees the shares fully valued at their current level of about 70 euros and acknowledged that financial markets are growing increasingly impatient with a man once considered to be the world’s most talented car executive. “The progress of the alliance certainly frustrates the investors we speak to in the market at least,” O’Brien said. Market watchers says that the alliance’s competitiveness would be strengthened if more parts were shared between Renault and Nissan, yet here too progress is slow. Ghosn has run Renault for more than a decade and Nissan for more than 16 years, but the partners only began to forge plans to consolidate architectures three years ago. As a result, it will take until 2020 before 70 percent of the combined volume is built off common platforms. “It took many years for Nissan to use Renault’s know-how in the B segment — the next-generation Micra is finally going to use the Clio ‘expertise’,” said Felipe Munoz, global automotive analyst at market research firm JATO Dynamics. Conversely, Renault chose not to use established Nissan platforms. “Renault has focused on Samsung to develop its midsize sedans, while Nissan has proven to be successful with its Sentra and Altima sedans,” Munoz added. It seems that much more mystifying then that Ghosn is looking to add a 9th brand with Mitsubishi. Scale may be crucial to limiting costs, but integrating another carmaker into the alliance can lead to greater complexity, which can erode savings from joint purchasing and development. An exchange at the annual news conference on the state of the Renault-Nissan and Daimler partnership in September 2015 showed the difference in the respective philosophies of the two carmakers. While Ghosn remained true to his decade-old pragmatism, saying he would “always say yes” when it comes to integrating further manufacturers into his fold given the right conditions, his more cautious German counterpart struck a different, much more balanced note. For Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche, potential benefits stemming from greater purchasing, development and manufacturing savings had to be weighed against challenges from adding an additional layer of complexity. “When you are already at significant volumes, the incremental economic gain in adding more volume is smaller, but the complexity when you add more partners gets bigger,” Zetsche told reporters. “So there is a breaking point. It might be that you can add another two, three or four more [partners] before you get to that point, it might be that you are already there”. While larger rivals Toyota and Volkswagen have more cleanly separated their portfolios of brands, Renault-Nissan already has a fair amount of overlap, effectively meaning that certain markets have to remain off limits in order not to invade each other’s space — typically not a problem when they are not targeting the same customers. The alliance already has three budget brands — Dacia, Datsun and Lada — and if Mitsubishi is added the alliance will have a trio of mass market marques. And while analysts believe Dacia is highly profitable, maintaining its cost leadership over the midterm to long term is a difficult proposition. The real money to be made in the industry is selling emotional cars with an aspirational or premium image. Yet Renault is only now getting ready to launch its Alpine performance brand, years after PSA Group has designated former Citroen subbrand DS to become a stand-alone unit. Infiniti, Nissan’s upscale marque, which pushed back its half a million unit sales target by three years to 2020, is an afterthought in many parts of the world. Granted, the kind of moonshot targets Ghosn lays out are nothing unusual. All CEOs need to have a grand vision for the future of their companies, in part to boost morale and foster a joint sense of purpose among employees. When he pushed back Renault’s 5 percent margin target by one year to 2017, no one expected the group would deliver two years early. But not all of the big gambles have paid off so far. Russia, structurally a promising market given the size of the population and the low vehicle density, has turned into a nightmare for Ghosn’s alliance in particular. Last year Renault’s losses from its AvtoVAZ stake more than tripled to 620 million euros. Now is has to inject fresh funding into Russia’s biggest automaker, consolidating all assets and liabilities on its own balance sheet by the end of this year. While Renault may be able to withstand this financial burden, it could cause severe strain. With just 2.7 billion euros as of the end of December, Renault has the lowest net cash position of any European automaker except indebted Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. All three rating agencies have Renault one notch above junk. Nissan, meanwhile, is in a tricky legal position as it plans to buy a controlling stake in Mitsubishi, which has been raided multiple times by Japanese authorities over its decades-long cheating on fuel economy tests. More models affected came to light at the end of August and one official said the company may be targeted again due to a “culture that’s prone to malpractice”. Amid this risky environment, Ghosn has had to back away from his 8 percent operating profit margin at Nissan originally planned for next March. Nevertheless, Renault and Nissan have succeeded where many other carmakers have failed. The alliance is considered a role model when it comes to integrating two major manufacturers with two entirely different cultures from two different continents. Much of the credit for this success goes to Ghosn, a Brazilian-born Frenchman of Lebanese ancestry, and his pragmatic approach that allows him to bridge differences and find common ground. But strains show due to one obvious paradox: Renault is the controlling shareholder in Nissan with a 43 percent stake and yet remains the smaller, weaker partner often dependent on its Japanese ally for the bulk of its profits. For 2015, two-thirds of Renault’s net profit could be attributed to Nissan’s contribution of 2 billion euros, and this declined from nearly 80 percent in the previous one. Its share of the alliance synergies is also lower at roughly 40 percent. That worries its largest shareholder, the French government, which currently holds nearly a fifth of the company, and is considered a major thorn in the side of Ghosn. Nissan is just the opposite. Its volumes and margins are substantially higher, but it owns a far smaller stake compared with Renault, and by agreement is not permitted to even exercise the 15 percent of the votes it does hold. Ghosn’s plans to give Nissan a say more commensurate with its value to Renault threatened to destabilize this delicate balance of power and prompted Paris to increase its stake in an effort to thwart him. Ever since, his relations with the French government have deteriorated, peaking in an embarrassing discussion about his bonus. Because of Ghosn’s leadership the alliance has been held together through the Lehman Bros. collapse and the eurozone debt crisis that culminated in a 20-year low for European car sales in 2013. Nevertheless, he has failed to groom two or even just one potential successor let alone cede control over either brand, even though he has two years left on his contract. “He’s seen as an obstacle to material change in the alliance — at least by financial markets”, O’Brien said. When asked about life after Ghosn byAutomotive News Europe, the alliance replied in a statement that it has put in place “robust succession plans that are regularly reviewed by the companies’ boards”. Adding Mitsubishi and AvtoVAZ, where he also serves as chairman, could cause the alliance to once again postpone a discussion about a post-Ghosn era to maintain stability during a challenging integration. “To some extent, Ghosn spent a lot of time making himself indispensable,” said one equity analyst, “rather than putting in place a structure that could deliver the best results”. +++
+++ SKODA’s fast car strategy is under review, as new boss Bernhard Maier seeks to establish how far he can stretch the brand’s appeal and whether he can make top-end vRS models sufficiently profitable to justify the development costs. At present, the Octavia vRS is the only top-end fast model in Skoda’s line-up. Instead, Skoda has focused on developing its Monte Carlo, Laurent & Klement and Sportsline styling packs, which have proved both profitable and popular with buyers. “Theoretically, there are no barriers to any kinds of derivatives, but it is a question of demand”, said Maier. “We have had a wonderful experience with trim upgrades, so I expect to do them again”. Asked about the recently launched Kodiaq, he added: “I can say now that it will have many emotional directions and we will leverage it in every way possible so as to leave as few people as possible out”. Although more powerful Kodiaq models than the current 190 hp four-cylinder diesel are expected, there’s no clear indication of whether a vRS derivative will be made. Similarly, despite a Superb vRS model being mooted — with speculation that it and a Kodiaq vRS could be powered by the 300 hp powertrain from the Volkswagen Golf R — there is no certainty that this will happen. Insiders suggest the Superb and Kodiaq remain the most likely models to get vRS variants, because their size means buyers are more willing to pay a premium. However, other reports suggest that Maier is eager to focus R&D money on hybrid and electric powertrain solutions rather than projects that add little sales volume or profit. +++
+++ TOYOTA said it will set up a joint internal company with subsidiary Daihatsu to develop and market compact vehicles in emerging markets, as Toyota aims to expand market share in other Asian markets. The Japanese automaker plans to establish the new unit in January, it said in a statement, adding that its operations would be led by compact carmaker Daihatsu, a Toyota group company which was absorbed by the automaker earlier this year. Daihatsu will be responsible for development, procurement and production preparations for compact cars while the 2 companies will use existing production sites to manufacture the compact vehicles. Toyota said the companies were considering possible markets including Vietnam, India and Pakistan. “With the establishment of the internal company, Toyota intends to learn the very fundamentals of Daihatsu’s competitiveness and change the way we work”, Toyota Executive Vice President Shigeki Terashi said in a statement. The companies intend to develop Daihatsu into a global brand as they focus on growing markets for entry-level compact cars, which are becoming smaller and energy efficient due to environmental and traffic concerns. Daihatsu holds around a 16 percent market share of the passenger car market in Indonesia, where it manufactures the Ayla and other vehicles in a joint venture with Astra International. In Malaysia, it operates a joint venture which has a market share of around 32.5 percent. +++
+++ Major automakers posted September UNITED STATES sales that were slightly lower than a year ago, despite big consumer discounts, as pickup volumes fell for both General Motors and Ford. Research firm Autodata Corp showed total industry sales at 1.44 million vehicles, down 0.5 percent for a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 17.76 million from 18.05 million in September 2015. GM, the top-seller in the United States, posted a 0.6 percent decline. Ford reported an 8 percent drop, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) was down 1 percent. Sales of Toyota grew 1.5 percent; Honda had a decline of 0.1 percent; and Nissan showed a 5 percent rise. Mark Wakefield, head of North American automotive practice at consultancy AlixPartners, said in a telephone interview that demand for pickup trucks remained strong in part because of low gasoline prices, despite the September dip for the biggest sellers. He also noted that September 2015 sales had been extremely strong, at an annualized rate of 18 million vehicles. Wakefield said the market has shifted to one of “push” from manufacturers rather than “pull” from consumers, with discounts of just over 10 percent of the average selling price of new vehicles for the last several months. While Ford said that September was the best month in 2016 for its F-Series pickup truck, sales were still down 3 percent from a year earlier. GM said pickup sales fell 15.5 percent for its Chevrolet Silverado and 8.5 percent for its GMC Sierra. Spokesman Dan Flores said in a telephone call that GM was holding tight reins on discounts, also called incentives, for Silverado and Sierra. It has 89 days of supply for those trucks, which he said put it in a good position heading into the fourth quarter, historically the strongest for pickups. Fiat Chrysler’s Ram 1500 pickup truck showed a sales increase of 29 percent. Fiat Chrysler spokesman Ralph Kisiel, responding by email to a Reuters query about rivals’ claims that Ram pickup trucks were highly discounted, said the company has offered “good deals” on 2016 model trucks to make way for the new 2017 models. Most analysts forecast a decrease in 2016 from last year’s record sales of nearly 17.5 million vehicles. The fourth quarter of 2015 was strong, so the next several months will present difficult comparisons, Wakefield said. Industrywide spending for discounts rose $430 per vehicle from a year ago, Mark LaNeve, Ford’s vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service, said on a conference call after the company reported sales. J.D. Power, in a research note last week, estimated record September industry incentive spending. In contrast to most analysts’ expectations, Toyota and GM executives said on Monday that a new record this year was within reach. “Industry sales in 2016 remain in line with last year’s record levels,” said Bill Fay, head of the Toyota brand in the U.S. market, told reporters on a conference call. GM Chief Economist Mustafa Mohatarem said in a telephone interview on Monday, “I don’t see any downturn in the U.S. economy any time soon”. +++