More stories related to 2005 NAIAS DETROIT – Nissan North America Inc. shows off its AZEAL entry-level coupe concept here at the North American International Auto Show.

Nissan’s Jed Connelly, senior vice president-sales and marketing for NNA, says the AZEAL is not necessarily a hint of what’s to come with the next-generation Sentra, set to go on sale in late summer 2006 as an ’07 model, but a way to gauge interest among younger buyers.

“The AZEAL concept is based on research we’ve done with our advanced planning group,” says Connelly. “

The young people today want everything the Gen-Xers want. They want a hot car that looks good, that drives great, that has functionality, that has style, but is just something they can afford. If you can develop that car, like a G35 or a Z, that you can price down around Sentra, that’s what that concept is about.”

Nissan AZEAL concept coupe

AZEAL is the first concept designed by Nissan’s North American design studio in Farmington Hills, MI. It features a driver-oriented cockpit, close-ratio 6-speed manual transmission and retractable navigation screen.

Connelly once again states Nissan’s intention to bring in a sub-Sentra model next year, but refuses to divulge details, only saying it will be on Nissan’s B-platform (March, Micra, Cube).

“It won’t be a straight Micra and it won’t be a straight Cube, but it will be on that platform,” he says.

And although the AZEAL is “just a design exercise,” Connelly says “we’re interested in the reaction (to the concept) because once we get that B-platform car out there obviously there could be extensions off of that.”

Connelly emphasizes the importance for Nissan to attract a younger buyer.

“You want to get (younger people) in and build loyalty,” Connelly says. “These people are going to buy 13-15 cars in their lifetime. If we get them in early we’ve got a shot at half of those cars.”

Connelly says no decision has been made on volume expectations for the sub-Sentra small car, or a production location.

Coming off 2004, which saw Nissan’s sales rise 24.1% in the U.S. to 986,303 units, Connelly is optimistic the auto maker can maintain growth here, but not at the same rate.

“We do believe this calendar year we can experience double-digit growth again, but certainly nothing near approaching 24%.”

However, “even without new product our year-over-year sales were up 6%,” he says.

As for future products, variants of Nissan’s Titan fullsize pickup truck are on the horizon, as Connelly says the “heavy duty segment is very important, very lucrative, (and) it lends a lot of credibility to the fullsize segment.”

Nissan’s Titan missed its 100,000-unit sales target for calendar 2004 badly, selling just 83,848 units. However, Connelly says Titan has had three straight 8,000-unit or greater sales months, which would put the vehicle on track to hit 100,000 this year.

A diesel engine would be an essential element to entering the heavy-duty truck market in the U.S., but Connelly won’t say where a diesel engine for Titan would come from.

Nissan earlier said it would not work with sibling Nissan Diesel and instead look to U.S. suppliers of diesel technology, such as Cummins Inc. and Detroit Diesel Corp.

Connelly says hybrids are also an essential part of Nissan’s expansion plans for the U.S.

The auto maker already has announced its intention to use the latest version of Toyota Motor Corp.’s hybrid technology for a hybrid version of the Altima sedan, due in ’07.

As for Altima, it will get a “major facelift” at the same time the hybrid version is released.

“If you think the Altima today is outstanding, the facelift is a knockout,” Connelly promises.

cschweinsberg@primediabusiness.com