DETROIT – Strong car sales carried the ball as Nissan North America Inc. gained share in the U.S. in 2009, but a top executive says the strong finish on the truck side has him optimistic that sector will continue to rebound this year.

Brian Carolin, senior vice president-sales and marketing, says the December showings for two key truck models came as a bit of a shock to the auto maker. Frontier deliveries nearly doubled to 2,988 units, and Pathfinder sales rose 38.5% to 2,314.

“One of the pleasing things, and this was true particularly toward the back end of the year, we were seeing penetration levels on some of our volume trucks picking up significantly,” Carolin says.

“We ended the year with Frontier (doubling) the market share of the prior year (in December). And we were doing that without paying incentives at the prevailing average in the segment.

“I think it caught a lot of us by surprise, because the prior year we had the fuel crisis,” he adds. “But we saw truck demand coming back and see it continuing to come back. I’m beginning to realize the American consumer has a short memory.”

A new cross/utility vehicle, dubbed the Juke and due in September, should bring additional spark to light-truck demand.

Expected to give a shot-in-the-arm to Nissan’s light-truck sales next year is a new Quest minivan, bowing in early 2011. Only 8,437 Quests were sold in 2009.

“The segment is reduced compared to its heyday, but it’s still an important part of market,” Carolin says of why Nissan will continue to offer a conventional minivan. “We’ve got an all new product in the pipeline – ground up it is a completely fresh vehicle. We’re pretty confident we’re going to do better with that car than the prior generation.”

Overall, Nissan netted another 0.2 points of light-vehicle market penetration in 2009, as gains for the Nissan-brand offset a slight drop for Infiniti.

Most of the positive movement resulted from the addition of the new Cube, but Nissan’s Z-car also increased volume slightly and the flagship Maxima sedan notched a 13.3% rise.

“We were setting records on Maxima,” Carolin, tells Ward’s in an interview at this week’s North American International Auto Show. “It’s a killer product, (and) it did extremely well.”

He puts Maxima’s share of its segment at a record 10.4%, topping its previous high of 8.6% in 1994. Ward’s classifies the Maxima differently, positioning it in the smaller-by-volume Large Car sector, where it picked up more than six points of share to 16.4%.

Nissan got a bit of a boost from the U.S. “Cash for Clunkers” government incentive program, garnering 8.7% of that volume, well above its 7.4% overall market share for the year.

Carolin isn’t concerned about the slight 0.1-point drop in share for the Infiniti brand, a falloff he blames on the wind-down of the current M and QX models. The new M is due this spring and the QX bows on sale in the summer. Infinitie also will add a completely new model to the lineup in the fall.

The brand should “catch back up” this year, he says, and, Nissan North America should continue to gain share overall in 2010.

“We’ve set our sights on progressive share growth each year,” Carolin says. “The 7.4% we did last year is an all-time record. And I expect that share growth to continue into this year.”

Like most auto makers, Nissan is forecasting a U.S. market of 11 million-12 million light vehicles in 2010.

“We’re just waiting to see how January comes in,” Carolin says, noting December posted a surprisingly strong 11.2 million seasonally adjusted annual rate. “If we see January-February at the 11 million SAAR level, then we’re pretty confident (the market) will be 11 to 12 million this year.”

Longer-term, he predicts a return to industry volumes of about 15 million vehicles.

“I don’t know if we’ll get back to 16 million-17 million,” Carolin says. “But in the midterm, I definitely see it getting back to 15.

“This is still going to be a difficult year,” he adds.

Nissan dealers are weathering the storm of the U.S. downturn, he contends.

“We’ve got over 70% of our dealers profitable,” Carolin says. “They’ve cut their expense levels, and overall profitability on both the Nissan and Infiniti side is just a little up even on prior year.

“We’ve seen very little bankruptcy or termination among our dealer body,” he says. “It’s been very stable. Given how the industry’s going…it’s amazing.

– with Christie Schweinsberg

dzoia@wardsauto.com