Kausfiles Special

Who Stole Nissan’s Cojones?

Nissan Motor Corporation, which recently announced a six-month loss of $3 billion, has been trying to pull itself out of near-bankruptcy with TV ads featuring its handsome, smooth-talking design chief, Jerry Hirshberg. In a spot for the Nissan Altima that’s on the air now, Hirshberg boasts, “Technically speaking, we gave the car some cojones.” The word “cojones” is partially bleeped out to emphasize that Hirshberg is bravely violating a taboo. Fleeting images of Altimas go by. Edgy!

Here’s the problem with this ad: Over the last few years, Nissan has managed the difficult feat of going broke while making some of the best mass-market cars in the world. About a decade ago, if I remember right, Nissan made the leading vehicle, in terms of quality and performance, in practically every category: The Sentra was the best small car, the Maxima the best sedan, the Pathfinder the best SUV. Then, although Nissan’s quality stayed high, sales and profits somehow plummeted. How did they do it? One word: ugly.*

Since Hirshberg’s shop produced many of those loser designs, it’s odd that he even kept his job, much less wound up as Nissan’s public face. It’s as if the leading Democratic candidate for president hired the architect of the Democrats’$2 1994 congressional defeat to run his campaign! OK, bad example. But you get the point.

Hirshberg has managed to dodge blame for Nissan’s decline by letting it be shifted to his Japanese bosses. The Detroit News recently reported that “in the old days, product plans and designs would go from California to Japan and return watered down, Hirshberg said.” That may have been true for some models. But for others, Hirshberg can’t deny paternity. In his own book, The Creative Priority, Hirshberg boasts of producing the original Infiniti J30, a car whose massively round, sagging rear end (based, Hirshberg says, on the bottom of a toilet bowl) was like nothing on the road, and nothing many consumers wanted to buy. The J30 was a car desperately trying to make a pretentious fashion statement, but it galumphed awkwardly in the real world of tires and asphalt. As P.J. O’Rourke once said of a Honda Prelude: It looks good from the front, it looks good from the back, it looks good from the top and the sides. It just doesn’t look good.

Hirshberg also claims paternity for the original Altima, another radical, droopy-assed design that performed weakly in the marketplace. “Every time I see somebody driving one of those,” says a friend of mine, “I feel sorry for them.” The current Altima retains the original’s basic downcast shape–which is why those images in the current TV ad are so fleeting. This is a vehicle designed to instantly lower your serotonin level by 50 percent.** The reason Hirshberg now has to add “cojones” is that he cut them off in the first place.

P.S.: Hirshberg was recently hired to help redesign the Los Angeles Times. How will he (to quote his book) “break through the stereotypes and freely access the associations and imagery … needed for inspiration”? When his team designed the ill-fated J30, they thought about toilet bowls and conceived their target customer as “the perfect asshole!” Times readers may be in for a special treat.

P.P.S.: In fairness, Hirshberg’s shop did produce at least one brilliant design, the 1990 “Gobi” pickup truck, which married a helicopter-pod cabin to a simple corrugated-steel truck bin. On the other hand, his recent proposed revival of the “Z” sports car was a shapeless blob.

* Nissan also failed to anticipate consumer demand for airbags; for years, many of its best cars were available only with those annoying motorized seat belts.

** I don’t want to speculate on the psychosexual meaning of “high-butt” versus “low-butt” automobiles, except to note that a) it’s pretty darn obvious; b) in keeping with a), men seem to uniformly like the high-rear designs, while those who like the low-rear look tend to be women; c) the low-rear look has abjectly failed in the market–the Altima, the J30, and the disastrous 1996 redesign of the Ford Taurus being the three most obvious flops. Ford has now reissued the Taurus with a higher butt, and Nissan probably can’t wait to redo the sad-sack Altima. The high-rear form is also functional, improving both aerodynamics and luggage space. The final collapse of the low-rear school was probably signaled recently when Audi was forced to add a spoiler–a raised wing–to the round, drooping rear of its high-style TT Coupe. Without the wing, the car tended to become unstable at very high speeds.