Japanese brands’ excessive caution in the Brazilian market is beginning to change.

Now Nissan is the latest of the Japanese Big Four to land here and the third to make passenger cars after Honda and Toyota.

The Livina – not well known outside Asia and looking much like an enlarged European Note – is being launched now with the goal of competing in a less crowded market, the monobox segment, where oppostion is Honda’s Fit [Jazz], Fiat’s Idea and GM’s Chevrolet Meriva (in order of sales).

Nissan’s ace in the pack is an exclusive, seven-seat version due mid-year.

The Japanese automaker shares facilities with alliance partner Renault in São José dos Pinhais (Paraná state) and is also using the French brand’s 1.6 litre petrol engine in what is believed to be a first – Nissan has previously used only Renault’s diesel engines until now.

It is also offering a 1.8-litre flexible-fuel engine made in Japan with Brazilian engineering collaboration. But both powerplants have poor fuel economy on ethanol compared to petrol as the compression ratio remains unchanged.

Although the company denies it, the Livina is derived from the B0 Logan-Sandero architecture, including the large wheelbase and cabin. Wide doors permit easy access and boot volume (449 litres/15.8 cu ft) is also segment-leading.

Finish, controls, ergonomics and materials are tops and there are 11 cabin storage pockets. For what it offers, pricing is quite competitive: from 47,000 Brazilian reais (US$21,000) to BRL57,000 ($25,000).

At present Nissan has just 1% of the light vehicle market and intends to sell 12,000 Livinas a year. However, it has set an ambitious target of 5% market share by 2013 and, to accomplish that a Brazilian-made compact model will be offered, probably the Micra [production of European version is shifting from England to India in 2010 – ed].

Meanwhile, Toyota said it would start building its new plant in Sorocaba (São Paulo state) in May to produce its first affordable compact car from 2011.

The Japanese seem to be taking the long-term view in Brazil, as they have in many other eventually successful markets. Here, they currently have small market shares yet aim higher – Mitsubishi holds 2.5%, Toyota 3% and Honda 4.5%.

Fernando Calmon