Nissan Europe's 16 percent growth in 2015 was fueled by continued strong demand for the Qashqai, which accounts for about half of the company's sales because the SUV/crossover dominates one of the region's hottest segments.
Nissan Europe Chairman Paul Willcox wants to use that success to boost the brand's profile in Europe, where awareness remains low despite its success with the Qashqai and its small sibling, the Juke subcompact SUV.
To achieve this Nissan will move its Qashqai even further upmarket by offering semi-autonomous driving in its flagship starting next year. Automotive News Europe Correspondent Nick Gibbs spoke with Willcox at the Geneva auto show last month.
You showed high-end concepts of the Qashqai and X-Trail SUVs at the Geneva auto show. Will you produce them?
About half of Qashqai sales are high-grade, which doesn't meet any norm if you benchmark other compact segment vehicles. There's a desire for higher-end technology and these cars are a representation of how we can take a more premium view for our crossovers.
What different kinds of technology are you talking about?
In 2017 we're taking the first big mainstream step on autonomous driving by offering our Piloted Drive as an option on the Qashqai. This is hands-off, feet-off for in-lane highway driving, the first step in autonomy.
How autonomous is this? Can you read a newspaper?
Nissan doesn't believe an autonomous car is a driverless car, so I wouldn't say the driver would be reading the newspaper. It will be an enabler to support the driver and not replace the driver.
How much will people pay for this?
That's very difficult to judge until we come to market. We will announce [the price of the option] nearer the launch. It's not just about plugging in a cost option. There is a big communication job by the industry to explain what autonomous drive is and the benefits of it. Take-up will depend on people's understanding of the value of that technology.
ACEA's numbers show Toyota outsold Nissan last year, but you've said Nissan was Europe's No. 1 Asian brand. Why is being No. 1 that important?
We made that declaration in 2011 and internally set a time frame for 2016. It wasn't vanity. The objective was a rallying call for the company: We needed to grow. At the time we were below 3 percent market share and we needed at least 4 percent. We could not survive otherwise. A lot of brands out there are sitting below 2 percent share and I don't know if they will continue to invest in Europe with the legislation coming and investment in product coming.