Mid-course corrections 

Nissan truck, Chevy coupe fight back for buyers

Nissan truck, Chevy coupe fight back for buyers

These are exciting times for automotive industry watchers, particularly for those who harbor secret Darwinian obsessions. This is not to say that these are especially enjoyable times for the majority of manufacturers. It is a time of flux, a season of unpredictability. It is an unprecedented era in which former glories count for naught while present strategies hold the key to future survival...or demise.

In remarking the ”updated“ versions of Nissan’s Frontier pickup and Chevrolet’s Cavalier RS coupe, the observer can see a clear illustration of the major tectonic shift that is grinding, folding, subtending our long-cherished notions about cars and trucks. In a nutshell, truck sales are poised to overtake car sales for what is surely the first time in history. (Light trucks have snared over 47 percent of total vehicle sales as of October ’98, exceeding both analysts’ projections and last year’s actual share of less than 45 percent for the same 10 months.)

This circumstance is forcing some car makers to fight a desperate rear-guard action to stave off extinction until, inevitably, tastes and needs cycle back to a car’s advantage. Of even more immediate concern to the truck makers is the necessity to make the most hay possible while the sun still shines. Indeed, storm clouds saturated with overproduction and charged with regulatory static are massing even now over the near horizon.

Nissan Frontier 4x4 XE-V6

No doubt about it, the Nissan pickup truck is this automaker’s pride and joy. Sure, this ”automotive company formerly known as Datsun“ once regaled enthusiasts with the magnificent Z-Car. But the 240Z, 260Z, 280Z, and 300ZX sports cars are today nothing more than hallowed memories, while the venerable Nissan pickup keeps on ticking after 40 years of taking its lickings.

For ’98, Nissan revamped its bread-and-butter vehicle with a full slate of mostly suspension and interior improvements (chronicled here Nov. 6, 1997). Moreover, the company finally gave its truck a formal name, Frontier, to replace a promotional nickname, Hard Body, that persisted overlong for lack of an alternative. What struck auto writers and customers most of all last year, however, was Nissan’s decision not to offer a V6 engine option in a vehicle virtually dependent on hauling and pulling power. ”The catalytic converters don’t fit,“ was the company’s response to incredulous reporters at last year’s media introduction of the Frontier.

Not unexpectedly, the company’s pickup sales have dropped like a stone for ’98, down more than 27 percent in the first 10 months. Although a raft of additional woes have beset Nissan this year, including a gaggle of ”upside-down leases“ coming home to roost, the Frontier faux pas certainly hasn’t helped: ”This company was hit with a big stupid-stick,“ admitted company spokesman Jason Vines with refreshing candor in a Wall Street Journal story last week.

That whack on the noggin seems to have beat some sense into the automaker. Behold the new Frontier V6, in which the 3.3-liter, 170-horsepower engine from the Nissan Pathfinder has finally found a suitable fit. It is a single-overhead-cam design and comes only in King Cab 4x4 models; but its arrival should prompt a hallelujah chorus from Nissan’s shell-shocked dealer base.

By itself, the new V6 does nothing more than put Frontier back in the sales contest. Now that there’s a reason for V6ers to take a look, the Frontier’s other charms may succeed in working their wiles. Why, yes, there is a cozy, quiet interior, isn’t there? And check out this ride, courtesy of the sporty-car-derived double-wishbone independent front suspension. There...look: the roomiest truck bed in the compact class, with slots for horizontal and vertical partitions. The optional limited-slip differential and standard auto-locking front hubs supply ample off-road ”crawl-ability“; moreover, the Frontier now shifts on the fly into four-wheel-drive at speeds up to 50 mph. And, do you know, the most pleasant sensation of all derives from the butter-smooth 5-speed manual transmission that shifts faultlessly through gear changes.

Decked out with $3,760 worth of convenience, sport, and sonic options, the ’99-model Frontier V6 in XE trim that I tested stickered out at $22,540. That’s right where it needs to be to merit a place, at the very least, on shoppers’ test-drive lists. Where it needs to be to save Nissan’s bacon, however, is in many more buyers’ garages.

Chevrolet Cavalier RS

There was a time not so long ago when Chevy’s Cavalier was the best-selling car in North America. GM’s cavalier attitude to the competition, chiefly from Japan and from Ford, put an end to all that. Now Cavalier is a budget-priced also-ran facing the public’s declining taste for cars—subcompacts in particular.

Too bad, actually, since the Cavalier is a well-made entry-level line of roomy coupes and sedans. In an attempt to stanch a hemorrhage exceeding 17 percent in sales losses so far in ’98, Chevy is dusting off the Rally Sport image kit, variously worn by Camaros and Monte Carlos of yore, and pasting little plastic ”RS“ emblems on a $13,000 coupe. The flounces and furbelows that comprise the RS standard-equipment list include cruise control, a ”Tilt-Wheel“ steering column, tach, carpet mats, baby-sized rear spoiler, color-keyed body moldings, and lower-than-normal-profile tires. Essentially, it’s an image and (minor) convenience package intended to emphasize Cavalier’s legitimate value message for first-time buyers.

You can’t call this Cavalier sporty, exactly—the Z24 version is Cavalier’s chief claimant to that title. The RS, however, is perky in a fresh-faced, well-scrubbed sort of way. The 2.2-liter four-banger makes 115 horsepower. Mated to a five-speed manual transmission, it’s tolerably fun to drive even if the shifting isn’t anywhere near as smooth as in the aforementioned Frontier truck. Having the optional sunroof ($595) is a kick; the CD-stereo is fine self-indulgence ($320), as is the power-everything equipment package ($714). A/C, of course, is gotta-have-it mandatory in these parts, and it adds another $795 to a sticker that finally reaches apogee at $15,945, as tested.

Oh well, so much for the entry level. Just the same, as consumers’ heads continue to be turned by sport/utes offering, perhaps, more image than value, Chevy apparently sees no harm in hollering its Rally Sport message into a gusting wind that is ultimately bound to change directions.

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