More than two decades after Nissan killed off the Datsun brand name, this venerable doyen of the Japanese automotive industry is set to be resurrected, as an independent third brand of the Renault-Nissan Alliance (fifth if one adds in Dacia in Romania and Samsung in South Korea) with prime criteria to drive growth in the burgeoning BRIC world!
Early today I was among a handful of journalists from India, Indonesia and Russia who were given access to the story behind not just the rebirth of Datsun but what is the significance of this brand and the type of automobiles it intends to build and deliver in the emerging markets for the auto makers. Born out of Carlos Ghosn's desire to tap low cost but not cheap methodologies to build cars saw his trusted lieutenant Vincent Cobee and veteran Nissan manufacturing hot shot Hidetoshi Imazu brainstorm not about how to carve out a low cost car but how to rethink the car business itself! Many have embarked on this line of thought but their endeavour hasn't gone the way they envisaged. I don't know why but the way Datsun has been conceived just could be the one way of rethinking the art of car design and manufacture in emerging markets.
The moot point was that a year ago Datsun wasn't even in the reckoning except in the minds of the aforementioned trio who debated hard about rethinking manufacturing processes to bring down development costs, crunching development times to get to market quickly and even more cost effectively while at the same time setting about thinking smart on identifying exact needs of car buyers at the entry level spectrum of the car market. It is no secret that Carlos Ghosn was an early advocate of low cost manufacturing and had been in the forefront of acknowledging Indian ingenuity courtesy the Tata Nano and also the qualitative back end of manufacturers like Bajaj Auto (with whom it explored a cheap low cost car before it fizzled out). Doing Datsun to take on Maruti Suzuki is I think a radical yet sensible approach because it finally hints at a series of cars priced just as competitively, designed even more effectively while delivering better performance and better fuel efficiency.
Towards that end we were told about not one or two but three cars being made by Datsun in India, two in the very first year of operations in 2014, with a third being added a year later. If that is not all, the range would be enhanced and updated every three years and the philosophy of global capability delivering local products would see no less than five body styles being evolved for manufacture and sale, first in India which will see the world launch of Datsun in July this year followed by Indonesia and Russia later this year with South Africa also getting into the production matrix a year down the line.
One of the key areas where Datsun has struck out in a totally new direction is in its ability to harness the strength of Nissan's normal product development capability from concept to production which is 24 months and crunch this down to just a shade over 20 months! While it did all this, the simultaneous engineering and lead development of components with suppliers has seen much the same approach which Toyota took to lower its product development aims with the Etios /Liva twins yet without sacrificing any of the performance strong points or user benefits.
However, in one area Datsun has conclusively shown the way forward to every other car maker in rethinking the art of car manufacturing: it has empowered local talent in engineering, design, manufacturing and management to take the lead and unlike the others who had their cars developed in high cost Japan, the entire project has been masterminded by engineers in India whose work has been validated at every stage by Nissan's Global Production Engineering Centre (GPEC) based at the firm's famous Zama Operation Centre which once built the very same Nissan Patrol SUV (we know of this as the Jonga) and one-tonne trucks which were then progressively built for the Indian army at the Vehicle Factory Jabalpur from 1966 onwards!
Vincent Cobee, Datsun's godfather virtually called his development team from Chennai last year and asked them whether they were game to lead the Datsun project. Cheekily he held out that they could refuse but the team took up the challenge and there was no looking back after that. Cobee said that Datsun today consists of a team of just 15 within the Renault-Nissan Alliance but has the deployment of the latter's infrastructure and human resources once they get into series production. The biggest achievement in getting this Indian angle to lead proceedings was brought about by Cobee clearly laying down the law to the management in Japan of either doing it there with limited engineers and thus losing crucial time to market or using ten times the engineers in India to get the job done in record time.
With this logic there was no way he was going to lose but the project got a further fillip when Hidetoshi Imazu, lent his might in more ways than one to the cause. Imazu is a 42-year old veteran at Nissan from the original Datsun days and apart from the heritage aspect he was keen to rethink ways to do the business. Presently member of the board and Executive Vice President of Nissan, Imazu san is widely revered as the man who conceived and perfected the Nissan Production System. And it is Imazu san's approach married to Ghosn's vision and Cobee's enthusiastically effective leadership (both hands-on as well as of the empowering type) that has the potential to truly effect a major game changer in the Indian automotive world.
As you can make out from the first teaser image featured here is a the new design signature to denote the Datsun line. Both Cobee and Ashwani Gupta, Program Director have been on record to state that the Datsun ethos would bank heavily on new age efficient design with strong packaging that will rewrite the basic rules of the small car game in this country. While there wasn't a car shown to us or even a style sketch preferred, we were able to glean what we could from a heavily camouflaged prototype undergoing accelerated torture tests (for body rigidity, suspension durability and also NVH reduction) on a four-post endurance test rig. The most important aspect that emerged to the fore was the fairly large wheelbase coupled to a wide stance along with a tall roofline indicates that the first Datsun would be the most space-efficient small car there is in the country, maybe having the wherewithal to if not shock the new Honda but surely to Amaze!
The body style of the first Datsun is that of a five-door hatchback which with its very short overhangs makes it into the sub-four-metre tax buster class. Styling would be modern and pleasing and the new Datsun signature effect should indicate this to good effect. The cars would have good crash effectiveness built into them and while targeting the likes of the Alto/Wagon R duo from Maruti Suzuki and the Hyundai Eon it should score big on most counts. Cobee has been on record to state that the pricing would be in the sub-Rs 4 lakh bracket, making it a serious contender in the largest car segment in the country.
No model names or alphanumeric nomenclature has been suggested as yet for the new Datsun though If one were to look at Datsun history they had the habit of using both model names (Prince, Patrol, Fairlady, etc) as well as alphanumerics (B210, 160J, 240RS, etc). What approach Datsun takes in this regard should be known at the world debut in July this year.
The first Datsun would make do with 1.2-litre three-cylinder petrol power which is the same engine that does duty in the Micra in India presently. There would be a 5-speed manual transmission to begin with though a diesel and a CVT could be added later on. Speaking with Sundararajan Krishnan, manager of one of the four project groups for Datsun in India, he said that the entire car would be localised from day one (in fact the prototype on the four-post endurance rig was shod with Apollo Amazer radials) and this would go on to deliver class leading performance, ride quality and class matching fuel efficiency.
The timelines have now been determined with a reveal by none other than Carlos Ghosn,the legendary cost cutter CEO of the Renault-Nissan Aliance in New Delhi in mid-July. While this world debut is an indicator to how important a role India and its engineers have played in the rebirth of the Datsun brand, I think this is where the going gets tougher and even more challenging. To begin with the Datsun brand would be sold and handled from the same Nissan dealer sales chain with specifically-charted out Datsun sections within them but going forward there would be a completely different Datsun sales network. This could kick-off as early as mid-2014, about the same time the car goes on sale, with first outlets opening in Tier-II and Tier- III cities. This is good thinking on its part, especially given the ambitious targets Cobee and Gupta have set for the new rejuvenated marque - talk of unit sales from the first full year of production going to ring in six figure numbers!
DATSUN-NISSAN'S INDIA HERITAGE
Datsun-Nissan has had a strong India heritage when the firm was more Datsun than Nissan though the very first models made in this country, for the defence forces, were specific Nissan models. The Jonga was one of they very first all-purpose go-anywhere vehicles exclusively made in India for the Indian Army and this was based on the Nissan Patrol with a large and very powerful six-cylinder petrol engine. The responsibility of making this was handled by the Vehicle Factory Jabalpur using kits shipped in from Japan to begin with before it was systematically localised over the next two decades. Along with the Patrol, the Vehicle Factory Jabalpur also made the Nissan one-tonne all-terrain truck and this was one of the Indian Army's mainstay transport hauler for the better part of two and a half decades.
The next exposure of a Nissan to India came by way of an engine-transmission pack which Premier Automobiles sourced on a one-time payment basis for us in the Premier 118NE saloon which appeared in the late 1980s. This engine which powered the then Nissan Sunny was a paragon of reliability while its transmission was surely one of the best seen doing duty in an Indian automobile till then, its shift actuation being a stand-out feature.
The next vehicle was the Nissan Cabstar LCV it made under a collaboration with the Andhra Pradesh government owned enterprise - Alwyn. One of the smallest of the first crop of Indo-Jap LCVs, the Alwyn-Nissan Cabstar was not a success given its small size and payload as well as the pricing in the era of the Tata 407 which humbled every single big and small LCV from Japan in that period.
Datsun's however caught the psyche of the Indian enthusiasts when they saw Kenyan aces Ramesh Khoda and Jayant Shah go on to dominate the Himalayan Rally in the first five years. Ramesh Khoda was the first Kenyan to win outright, driving his Datsun 160J to victory in 1981. His compatriot Jayant Shah then made it a hat-trick of victories from the next year on, driving the mighty Datsun 240RS. And unbeknown to many, one of the very first tests for an all new small Nissan was also on the Himalayan Rally when Swedish ace Per Eklund stunned many more powerful cars driving the works Nissan Micra during the 1988 event before it retired!
Stay tuned in for more as we plot the return of Datsun back to the automotive world!
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