Comeback, By Design

Jimmy Parsons had no plans to buy a car when he accompanied a friend to a Nissan dealership last week. To Parsons, Nissan was always "kind of a joke, and boring." Then he got a load of the razor-sharp 350Z sports car in the showroom. "I thought of myself in that car and went, 'Wow!' " says Parsons, 38, who wheeled a $33,000 silver Z off the lot. "I don't really need more tickets, but I wanted that Z."

If anyone should be pulled over for speeding, it's Nissan. Sputtering along a few years ago, the company has come roaring back by overhauling its lineup with racy automotive architecture. Ever since Renault took control in 1999, the Japanese automaker has reinvented itself by unleashing a blitz of 28 new models with a French eye for style. There's the arched roofline of the Maxima, with a soaring skylight suggesting an artist's loft. Then there's the quirky Quest minivan, with an orange interior and a shifter poking out of a center pod dash. And Nissan's cigar-nosed Infiniti G35 luxury car is turning heads with glistening headlights sweeping back into the fenders. "Their cars connect with buyers because they're like visual jewelry," says Car and Driver editor Csaba Csere. That has pumped up Nissan's U.S. sales nearly 20 percent in the last five years, while profits grew 84 percent. By mid-decade Nissan plans to sell 1 million cars in America, a 35 percent boost that'll put them on Honda's bumper.

Now Nissan is taking on Detroit's big rigs. At this week's New York Auto Show Nissan will launch its own land yacht--the Pathfinder Armada (no joke). The hulking $40,000 SUV with a humped hood, pictured for the first time on this page, captures some of the military macho that has made the Hummer H2 a hit. It is based on Nissan's brawny Titan pickup that debuted to raves in January. Both models go on sale this fall. But already one critic has compared the Armada to a Ninja Turtle. That's OK with Nissan, starved for attention after years of trying to make Toyota clones. "We don't want to be stupidly bold," says Nissan product development chief Patrick Pelata, "but we want to be different."

Nissan nearly ran itself aground chasing Toyota. By the time Renault's Carlos (Le Cost Killer) Ghosn took the wheel at Nissan, the automaker was awash in debt and its drab cars were distant also-rans. While Ghosn closed factories and laid off workers, Pelata re-engineered Nissan's cars with the formula that revived Renault in Europe: in-your-face designs. And to appeal to lead-footed Americans, he stuffed muscle-car engines into those hip new models. Now Gen-Xers who reject Toyota and Honda as mom-mobiles are discovering Nissan.

But trendy cars can flame out fast. Volkswagen was hot two years ago and now its sales are off 11 percent. "You can't turn your back on the possibility that the shelf life will be short," says Montclair, Calif., Nissan dealer John Hawkins.

Nissan insists it's more than just a passing fancy. Unlike the fading VW Beetle, Nissan's designs are modern, not retro. Nissan also hopes its topnotch quality will attract buyers in the jumbo SUV market dominated by Detroit. And Ghosn is stoking demand with new models like the $34,000 Z convertible coming this summer. But mostly, Nissan believes it won't lose its groove because it's still running scared. "We had a near-death experience," says Ghosn, "we're just glad to be here." Now he just has to make sure Nissan doesn't become an automotive fashion victim.