TOKYO – Figuring out why the new Nissan Sentra isn’t more successful is at the top of the priority list for new Nissan North America Inc. sales chief Mark McNabb.

“I’ve started looking into Sentra in particular,” McNabb tells Ward’s during a recent interview here. “Why is it we’re not doing a better job with this vehicle? What’s holding it back?”

The sixth-generation Sentra debuted last fall as an ’07 model to mixed reviews and slow sales. Through October, Sentra sales in the U.S. were down 10.9% to 91,463 units.

McNabb, who assumed the position of senior vice president-sales and marketing for NNA following the June departure of Brad Bradshaw, speculates the growing subcompact segment may be playing a role.

Ward’s segmentation data shows the Upper Small segment where the Sentra resides is down 4.3% this year vs. like-2006, while demand in the Lower Small sector has increased 37.3%.

“The subcompact segment is growing, and it’s growing pretty quick, and the compact segment actually has been down,” McNabb says. “So it’s pretty safe to draw the conclusion that there are people moving down to that segment.”

However, McNabb cannot say for certain if Sentra shoppers are instead choosing Nissan’s subcompact Versa sedan and hatchback.

Versa sales jumped 364.3% in the first 10 months to 67,688 units, encroaching on segment leader the Toyota Yaris.

He says his first priority with the Sentra will be “to make sure dealers are engaged with the vehicle,” adding Nissan’s lineup is expanding with the Rogue small cross/utility vehicle and the upcoming GT-R sports car.

“There’s a big breadth of a lineup right now, so you’ve got to make sure the dealers are engaged,” McNabb says.

He also says Nissan will review the Sentra’s marketing efforts to see “if there’s something we can tweak to get the car going a little bit stronger.”

Dealers agree Nissan’s marketing has been lacking and is a likely culprit for decreased sales.

“One thing I think Nissan could be doing a little bit differently is making it known what great gas mileage this car gets,” says Tom Fraser, new-car sales manager for the Nissan brand at Suburban Imports in Troy, MI.

Walter Dolan, senior sales consultant at Pinnacle Nissan in Scottsdale, AZ, one of the country’s highest-volume Nissan stores, agrees fuel economy needs to be emphasized but says any Sentra advertising would be welcome.

“There’s a big market here for that car, but we’re not seeing a lot of support behind the car coming out of Nissan,” Dolan laments, adding the Altima, Titan and Rogue have drawn most of Nissan’s ad dollars this year.

Dolan says Pinnacle Nissan is selling about as many of the new Sentras per month as it did the previous-generation model, but “with a much better product, with many more features, we should be doing better,” he says. “People don’t know about the car until they hit the car lot.”

McNabb maintains that while volume may be down, the Sentra’s transaction price is up over the previous-generation model and now is more in line with the competition.

And Nissan has been able to reduce incentive levels, he says.

The auto maker is offering up to $1,500 off ’07 Sentras and a $500 cash rebate on the ’08 model, according to Edmunds.com.

“It’s definitely, from a profit standpoint, not that bad,” McNabb says. “From a volume standpoint, we can probably do a bit more.”

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com