LOS ANGELES – Dark skies in the year ahead fill the crystal ball that Nissan North America Inc. uses to foretell its future, so the company is focusing intensively on the same strategy that rescued the Japanese auto maker several years ago in tough times: new product.

Specifically, Nissan pins its hopes on two new models, the fuel-efficient Cube B-car and, for enthusiasts, the next generation of its Z sports car, the 370Z.

Nissan already has a B-car, the Versa, but the Cube will be taller and boxier and will offer additional functionality and interior space.

“This is in many respects an experiment,” Brian Carolin, senior vice president-sales and marketing for NNA tells Ward’s. “This is the third-generation Cube. It’s been hugely successful in Japan. It’s such a fun car.”

When reminded such an “experiment” already exists, in the form of Toyota Motor Corp.’s Scion xB, he laughingly says, “This is much better.”

Carolin plays up Cube’s “surprisingly good fuel economy,” estimated to be 30 mpg (7.8 L/100 km) on the highway.

He isn’t saying much about pricing of the car, which arrives in U.S. showrooms in the spring and includes “fun” interior features such as multi-colored rubber bands and shag-carpet options.

Carolin says Nissan has “no idea” about anticipated sales volumes for the Cube. “We may get a surprise with this car,” he says. “I think it can appeal across a very wide age range.”

In April, Carolin replaced Mark McNabb, now a sales vice president for General Motors Corp.’s Cadillac, Hummer and Saab brands, as NNA’s third highest-ranking salesman in three years.

“I think the October (seasonally adjusted annual sales rate) at 10.6 million was a big shock,” he says of the current dismal state of the U.S. new-vehicle market. “That’s a 32%, almost 33% drop in the industry. So it’s an extremely challenging environment for all the car makers.”

Nissan, which calculates data on a fiscal-year basis, calls for a SAAR of 12.4 million units for its fiscal 2008, ending March 31.

“At the moment, I would see the industry at around 11 (million units) through (our fiscal) 2009, so about 11.5 (million),” Carolin says.

He describes as “perilous” any efforts to forecast sales for the month of November, given the market volatility.

Carolin led European sales and marketing when Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. CEO Carlos Ghosn summoned him to the U.S. He says 80% of the job requirements are “common, irrespective of which region you work in,” but concedes, “I am definitely familiar with an environment where fuel prices are high and customers are searching for vehicles with high fuel efficiency.

“That’s been very much a sea shift in the consumers’ thinking here in the U.S., and I don’t see that disappearing, incidentally.”

Next year will be a quiet one for Nissan in the U.S., although the new Z car is bound to generate some buzz.

The car Carolin says exemplifies Nissan’s revival gets a higher displacement 3.7L V-6 vs. the outgoing model’s 3.5L V-6, resulting in 26 more ponies for a total of 332 hp. The 370Z will be priced below $30,000 to start.

“You cannot in this market get that level of performance for that price,” he says, admitting the low sales volume for the Z might do little to boost the auto maker’s bottom line.

And while not new – with the exception of a sub-$10,000 base model for ’09 – the subcompact Versa is expected to be a strong performer in 2009.

“We’re selling more Versas than we did last year,” Carolin says of 2008 sales, which through October stood at 75,509 units, up 11.6% from like-2007, Ward’s data shows. “And our segment share in the month of October was 22%, so we’re very pleased with (the) Versa.”

Carolin declines to predict Versa sales for 2009 because of the uncertain market, but he anticipates Nissan’s share of the subcompact segment to climb.

Although Nissan was caught off-guard by the demand for small vehicles when fuel prices spiked in the spring, Carolin is certain the auto maker has the capacity at its Aguascalientes, Mexico, plant to get as many Versas as it needs.

“We see Versa as one of our core models, a model where we’re going to put a bigger investment in terms of marketing,” he says.

Nissan U.S. sales in 2008 yo-yoed: down 7.5% in June when gas hit $4 a gallon; up 13.6% in July when other auto makers’ sales slumped; and down a steep 35.5% in October, Ward’s data shows.

Through October, Nissan’s U.S. sales were down 6.2% to 842,724 units.

Never happy to see sales dip, Carolin takes solace in Nissan’s ability to increase its share this year, to a record 7.3% in the U.S. through October.

“I feel pretty good about that,” he says. Adding market share for Nissan is “not a driving objective – profitability remains the No.1 objective – but market share is a pretty good indicator of you doing things right.”

To cope with the market downturn, Nissan is cutting production to control inventory, Carolin says.

The auto maker this year saw days’ supply of several models balloon wildly, including the Titan fullsize pickup and Quest minivan. The latter had a 445 days’ supply at the end of October, Ward’s data shows.

However, Carolin says the inventory of the Quest actually is quite small. In the case of the Titan, he admits Nissan was surprised by the generous incentives competitors had placed on their fullsize trucks.

“One of the reasons why our sales have fallen so much is that incentives in that segment (skyrocketed),” he says. “There’s been so much grounded inventory; there’s a limit to how much you can play in (the incentive wars).”

Titan sales through October were down 44.8% to 30,907 units, a far cry from the 100,000-unit annual volume Nissan hoped to achieve when the truck launched in 2003.

Conceding defeat, Nissan in the spring announced Chrysler LLC would build the next-generation Titan on the new ’09 Dodge Ram platform.

The truck, which Nissan executives say will look different from the Dodge Ram, is expected in 2011.

Even with plunging sales of the current Titan, Carolin says Nissan wants “to keep our place” in the fullsize-pickup segment and won’t pull the vehicle before the next generation arrives in 2011.

With the 35 mpg (6.7 L/100 km) fuel-efficiency requirement looming over the industry, Nissan will rationalize its light-truck lineup in coming years.

“In our 5-year cycle plan, there will definitely be some ins and some outs,” he says, without getting specific.

Nissan has said it will shift production of the Quest and Infiniti QX56 SUV from Canton, MS, to Japan for their next generations but has not discussed the future of its Armada large SUV, also built in Canton.

Expectations are it will not see another generation, but Carolin is tight-lipped. “No comment,” he says of Armada’s future.

Sales at Nissan’s Infiniti brand slowed in 2008, down 6.5% to 97,085 units, Ward’s data shows.

Carolin blames the dip partly on the cave-in of the near-luxury segment. Sales of Infiniti’s best-selling G sedan and coupe fell 7.2% this year.

Infiniti will launch a convertible-version of the rear-wheel-drive G coupe in 2009.

“Luxury has taken a real battering this year,” Carolin says. He insists Infiniti “held our own” in the G’s segment but admits the growth of competitive brands, such as Audi, has been an eye-opener.

Infiniti for some time has been considering a smaller-displacement engine for the G series. With the growth of models such as Audi’s A4, which offers a turbocharged 4-cyl. gasoline engine, Carolin says Infiniti now doesn’t have to fear diluting its brand image with a smaller-displacement V-6 or even a 4-cyl.

“We definitely have got (smaller engines) as a study item, but we’ve not made any decisions,” he says. “But it’s pretty clear the powertrain offerings in that part of the market are beginning to fragment, or diversify.”

Meanwhile, Carolin says next year Nissan will keep updating the media and public on progress regarding its coming electric vehicle, which is set to debut in fleets in the U.S. in 2010 and be mass-marketed in 2012.

If the clouds should part in Nissan’s crystal ball, Carolin would love to see those EVs go on sale sooner.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com