Emerging from the driver's seat of a new Nissan GT-R at the Tokyo Motor Show last fall, CEO Carlos Ghosn flashed a wry grin and a custom-made Louis Vuitton suit. Ghosn's sharp look--a departure from his usual boardroom standard issue--suggested a calculated step up for Japan's No. 3 automaker. The GT-R--part luxury vehicle, part sports car--is Nissan's bid to compete head on with Ferrari and Porsche. For a company that has built its brand on the 3.6 million reliable midrange vehicles it produces every year, that is no small ambition. Think Ultraman meets Bond in a car designed for everyman--everyman who has $80,000 to spend. Building that car required Nissan to throw out much of its development know-how. Instead of a committee of Japanese engineers, Nissan put its faith in the creativity of a global team of engineers, designers and marketers. The GT-R is more than just a showpiece for gearheads, says Darren Cox, Nissan's brand-promotion manager in Paris: "The GT-R is a talisman from a product perspective but also a way of working."
While Ghosn called the shots, Kazutoshi Mizuno, chief vehicle engineer and chief product specialist, choreographed the GT-R's journey from a Japanese concept to Germany's famed Nürburgring racetrack, where it clocked 0 to 60 m.p.h. (100 km/h) in 3.2 sec., a wink faster than Porsche's GT3. "Mizuno was responsible for cherry-picking those he wanted to work with," says Hiroshi Hasegawa, chief designer of the GT-R. "Information cascaded from him." A veteran racing-system developer and director, Mizuno asked Ghosn to allow for a race-car development method. He started in December 2003, using early data on the GT-R concept to teach others how to reach the targets they would soon face in design. At that point, Mizuno says, he understood 120% of what needed to be done, but "others knew zero." Nissan held a global design competition--a first for the company--to pare down submissions for the car from 80 designers. About eight months later, Mizuno put together an approximately 100-person global team to execute the final design, which came under the direction of a six-person steering committee led by Ghosn in the spring of 2006.
"The process was not all sweetness and light. There were arguments and disagreements," says Simon Sproule, a Nissan spokesman. "It was very intense but more so because everyone was interested in the car. It gets very emotional." Hasegawa points to conflict between the engineering and design teams but says, "Compared to a normal project, we were more strongly conscious of being members of a team," and adds that building the GT-R was their shared goal. Mizuno reduced that task to its four core elements: engine, transmission, suspension and body design. Nissan hopes to use the same structure for the design of its Z and Cube models.
The cross-company, cross-national teamwork that created the car is inspiring those who are selling it. Nissan's marketing team held global meetings at which, for example, a proposal from Europe to work with only a select number of GT-R dealers was picked up for Japan and, possibly, the U.S. (The GT-R was unveiled in Japan last October, and will launch in the U.S. in June and in Europe by March 2009.)
Conspicuously absent from the team is advertising. Nissan's nontraditional marketing plan for the GT-R includes viral video, manga, two documentaries and a tie-in with Sony Computer Entertainment for an appearance in PlayStation's new Gran Turismo 5. The strategy is another signal of change: publicity-generated marketing is common practice for brands like Aston Martin and Lamborghini.
While the GT-R is further proof of Nissan's global dna--it is, after all, a Japanese company run by a Frenchman--Nissan has never deviated from keeping the GT-R's image rooted in Japan. (Ghosn's steering committee even toyed with the idea of linking the GT-R with Godzilla.) Mizuno often says that the car was born in Japan and raised in Germany. The GT-R, he says, is an expression of the Japanese senpai-kohai system, in which the more experienced teach their juniors. The GT-R team simply took that Japanese concept and exported it to build the car that Nissan--and, it hopes, luxury consumers--is waiting for. "Through the GT-R," Mizuno says, "all of Nissan can grow up."