According to a recent news report, the next Nissan Altima is to become a global model. So how is the current car doing in the US, its largest market? The answer is revealing.

Nissan North America is one of the big success stories of 2011. Few noticed when it recently overtook American Honda to become the US market’s fourth best selling nameplate for cars (479,709 units for the year to the end of October, versus the Honda brand’s 478,092). In light trucks NNA – which even developed the Titan especially for North America, has gone the other way, but that’s perhaps something for another day.

The key to Nissan’s recent US market success in cars isn’t just the misfortune of Honda and Toyota’s supply chain problems earlier in 2011 though, granted, when the Altima suddenly outsold every other car in May that certainly was much of the reason. No, the playing field is levelling off as the problems caused by the respective one-off factors of tsunamis and floods in Japan and Thailand are just about solved now. So what is really behind Nissan’s winning ways in the USA?

Sure, incentives are a factor but the company’s performance is all the more impressive due to the age of its best sellers, the Sentra compact and Altima mid-sizer. Both cars are due to be replaced in 2012 and that fact really makes things interesting when looking into what could be ahead. A rebodied Camry has just been launched but the Accord is heading into the last year of its current lifecycle so NNA has a huge opportunity to build on the Altima’s momentum.

After I wrote the news item earlier today I decided to take a peek at some comparative sales numbers for the Altima (I was on holiday when the most recent ones came out). Here’s what caught my eye: 21,838 Altimas were sold in October. That meant it was only 205 units behind the Accord. Even better for NNA, it lagged the Camry by a mere 751 cars. Remember, these were America’s top three cars last month so this stuff matters.

Still with me? I’m getting there – take a look at the numbers for the year to the end of October 2010 (the equivalent totals for THIS year are in brackets):

Camry: 275,844 (251,564)

Accord: 236,278 (203,603)

And now, look at the numbers for Nissan’s mid-sizer:

Altima: 187,875 (222,392)

Toyota and Honda have been watching their backs so closely for Hyundai and Kia’s rapid progress towards them that they almost seem to have looked right past Nissan.

So the Altima, an entrant in the US mid-sized segment that was once seen by many buyers as a bit second tier, has comprehensively beaten the Honda Accord in 2011, thanks to an 18% YoY sales rise. The Altima also seems certain to finish the calendar year closer to the Camry than it has ever been in the four generations of its existence.

You can probably guess where I am going with this, so here it is: what if the just-launched Camry fails to take off and sales actually fall compared to the outgoing car? Unthinkable? That’s what American Honda thought about its latest Civic. Now it’s rushing to revise the car and address the public’s luke-warm reaction to its styling and interior. Even worse, what if the next Accord doesn’t quite cut the mustard either?

Chevrolet dealers in the US will soon have the new Malibu, plus a Ford Fusion successor is also due in 2012, so the Altima will soon be facing two formidable new rivals. And let’s not ignore the Sonata, as well as the newly US-built Kia Optima and the Passat, production of which is also now ramping up. Even with all these thrown into the mix, would you bet against the Altima remaining a major force given its sustained rise against the once seemingly unbeatable Accord and Camry?

Here’s my prediction: if Nissan improves the styling, roominess and economy whilst keeping prices and quality at current levels, the next Altima might well be the first one to regularly appear in the top or second slot of the US best sellers’ list. I also find myself wondering if Nissan has a federalised Alliance diesel engine ready to take the fight to the Passat TDI the next time the oil price shoots up.

I’ve concentrated on the US market in this piece, but you don’t need to think too hard to see where this global battle for large-ish sedans will next be played out: China, and to a certain extent, Russia, where, worryingly for Toyota Motor Europe, the locally-built Camry failed to make the top 25 best sellers list last month.

The Teana/Maxima does well in the PRC, as do the Camry and Accord. But aside from China (and Russia) where the sales rise continues apace, this segment is growing only slowly or even shrinking in markets as diverse as Europe, North America, and even Australia. Volkswagen is somewhat unusual, in that it has its own plans and, like Toyota’s, they consist of two different-sized models to blanket the class globally. For now, Ford maintains the same position but the Fusion and Mondeo successors will be twinned within eighteen months, but possibly sooner.

As General Motors’ product planners cannily realised some years back when they created the wish list that became what is now the new Chevrolet Malibu, the opportunity for one global model in this sector is a major one. And so, around this time next year, don’t be surprised if Nissan is the shock new challenger to GM and VW’s still-growing success in the one-model-name-for-ALL-markets game.

Author: Glenn Brooks