It's been an interesting 10 years as a Nissan dealer, says Vince Sheehy who observed that milestone in September.

“Sometimes it's been too interesting,” he says referring to the tough times from which Nissan is attempting to rebound.

“I remember being told at the 1992 NADA convention that I came aboard Nissan at the right time because they were coming out with the Altima,” says Mr. Sheehy. “And the Altima had a nice run for a few years.”

But then the parent company in Japan suffered huge financial losses during the Asian economic crisis of the mid-90s, leading to Renault acquiring a controlling interest in Nissan.

A lot of industry observers, remembering how Renault acquired American Motors and then proceeded to ruin it, wondered if Nissan faced a similar fate. But Renault put Nissan back on its feet.

“Renault brought in a lot of cash and auto know-how,” says Mr. Sheehy. “People are excited about Nissan again, especially with the new Altima coming out.”

The redone Altima is nothing like its predecessor. It's bigger and more powerful, and positioned to compete head-on with the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord in the vast mid-size sedan segment.

The previous strategy was for the Altima to compete at the lower end of that segment and the Nissan Maxima to compete at the upper end, with no real contender in the middle. But that fell short.

“We tried to straddle the segment at either end, and it didn't work,” says Jed Connelly, Nissan North America Inc.'s senior vice president of sales and marketing.

He has high hopes for the Altima because “a lot of the competition is boring,” he claims.

The plan now is to boost Altima sales from about 140,000 units a year to 190,000. Maxima production and sales would drop from about 110,00 units to 70,000.

Nissan also wants to sell new Altimas at full or close-to-full sticker prices, without the hefty incentives that have been slapped on several Nissan products heretofore.

“Our goal is not to overtake the competition,” says Mr. Connelly. “Rather it is sustained, profitable growth. It's a focus on a good mix of product and on the way we go to market opposed to dumping 15% of our products into fleets.”

The New Altima also represents a new corporate attitude, better brand management and an enhanced brand identity. Nissan wants all that to be embodied at the dealer level as well.

“It's challenging to get dealers involved with brand management,” says Peter Bossis, Nissan North America's corporate brand manager. “Nissan has always had good product, but we didn't bring it to market well. We had to incentivize it.

“Now the new products are bringing in different customers, people who have more education and more money. Since the launch of the Xterra SUV, there's been a tremendous improvement not only in product but in marketing. We've got to bring it to the next level.”

Adds Mr. Connelly, “Dealers need to understand that the stronger the brand, the stronger we all will be.”

Many dealers seem to get that. And they're encouraged by Nissan's product blitz which calls for introducing 10 new vehicles over three years. That includes a restyled Maxima, a revived Z coupe and an all-new full-size pickup truck.

Nissan is at a “turning point,” says third-generation dealer Bob Wright of Wright Automotive Group, based in Wexford, PA, which has sold Nissans for 25 years.

“The franchise needs to develop brand awareness as well as develop new product,” he says. “Incentives aren't the answer. And in the past, Nissan has been putting a lot of incentives on its vehicles.”

Mr. Connelly sees the market as more competitive. People are still buying cars, he says, but they are more discriminating and more cautious.

W. J. Kirrane, Nissan North America's Nissan division general manager, is encouraged that the automaker saw a 10% increase in sales in the last half of 2001 compared to the first half — “a reverse of what happened in 2000.”

He's concerned about “the collapse” of the compact pickup truck market as more and more pickup buyers are attracted to full-size versions, something Nissan doesn't have — yet.

Nissan will introduce its full-size pickup in two years to compete with the likes of the Chevrolet Silverado, Ford F-150, Dodge Ram and Toyota Tundra.