Nissan North America Inc. is on the verge of making history in 2004: It may see its U.S. sales increase anastounding 200,000 units from 2003.

Since the late 1950s, year-to-year increases of this magnitude only have been accomplished by the U.S. Big Three auto makers, each of which has several times the market share of Nissan. So far, the biggest year-to-year gain by a non-Big Three company is a 180,005-unit jump by Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. in 1977.

Furthermore, Nissan has the opportunity to continue increasing sales in 2005 and 2006 and put itself in a position to make its market share gains stick.

Since the 1999 equity swap with Renault SA, Nissan has diversified its product portfolio and shored up some of its existing products, most notably its Infiniti luxury brand. But its once-bland Nissan marque now has many more stylish offerings such as the Murano cross/utility vehicle and 350Z sports car — and it's entering new segments (large pickups and fullsize SUVs) to boot.

Nissan's surge in 2004 will come from the first full-year availability of its all-new Titan large pickup, its new Titan-based Pathfinder Armada large SUV, and the '04 Quest minivan, which is a major improvement on its predecessor. And Nissan will round out its new-product barrage with the Infiniti QX56 large luxury SUV early this year.

To keep the ball rolling, albeit with smaller gains, Nissan will overhaul nearly the entire rest of its lineup between 2004 and 2006.

In 1999, when Renault in effect took control of the company through an equity swap, Nissan was in the midst of a 21-year low in market share (4.0%). This year it's on track for 4.8%, highest since 1997. Best-ever annual market share was 5.62% in 1980.

Nissan's sales should end the year at about 790,000 units, which would be its second best ever behind the 830,767 vehicles sold in 1985. But back then, half its sales were low-margin small cars.

With industry sales expected to range between 16.8 million and 17 million in 2004, Nissan's market share could rise by a full percentage point to 5.8%. It could account for more than half of the industry's overall increase from 2003's estimated 16.65 million units.

Aside from the big one-time gain, Nissan has the chance to increase its long-term foothold on the market through better products and reputation.

After foundering for years playing second fiddle to higher-profile brands, Infiniti this year is headed for its biggest share ever among luxury brands.

The new FX CUV has helped, but Infiniti's growth has not been so much in trucks as in cars. The redesigned G35 sedan has been a success and is helping Infiniti compete with Lexus, BMW and Mercedes. Coming in 2004 is a redesign of its mid-luxury car, the M45, followed in 2005 by a redesign of the lower-luxury I35. The premium-priced Q45 gets a redo in 2006.

If it can copy the success of the G35, Infiniti's place in the luxury car segment will be cemented for some time to come.

However, Nissan's upscale move isn't limited to just luxury vehicles.

Besides its upward move in trucks with Titan and Pathfinder Armada, the Maxima sedan was redesigned in early 2003 and is competing with near-luxury sedans such as the Toyota Avalon and Mitsubishi Diamante.

Nissan's position in the middle car segment is further filled out by the Altima, which also grew bigger with its last redesign in 2001. It's set for a redo in 2006.

As for the rest of the product line, the Frontier pickup and Pathfinder midsize SUV are set for makeovers in 2004, followed in 2005 by redesigns to the Xterra SUV and Sentra small car.

After 2006, how well Nissan does will be determined by the degree of positive imprint its products leave in the minds of consumers.