Nissan's new boss in North America says US car sales will continue at record-breaking levels in 2019 but admitted there are challenges ahead

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Nissan's new boss in North America says US car sales will continue at record-breaking levels in 2019 but admitted there are challenges ahead

Nissan Altima 2

Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

The new Nissan Altima.

  • Denis Le Vot, the head of Nissan's North American business, expects US auto sales to remain at a historically high 17 million new vehicles in 2019.
  • He's also bullish on Nissan's new products, which range from SUVs to sedans, despite a big move away from four-doors in the US.
  • On the electric front, an updated Leaf EV will be joined by eight new vehicles through 2022.

The Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance is embattled. The architect of the partnership, Carlos Ghosn, was arrested in Japan last year on allegations of financial impropriety and has been held in a Tokyo jail ever since. Although he maintains his innocence, the scandal has apparently ended one of the most colorful careers in the history of the auto industry, with Ghosn having to resign from his chairman roles.

Business, however, goes on. Nissan North America is now overseen by Denis Le Vot, who took over in January 2018 after almost three decades at Renault. He inherited a solid business, but one without challenges. Nissan has maintained near-10% market share in the US, but a curtailment of incentive spending last year tanked sales by almost 30% midyear. Though sales recovered during the second half of the year, they were still down 6.6% from 2017.

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Le Vot, crisply attired in a dark suit and sporting a hip Longines Legend Diver wristwatch, discussed the 2019 outlook with Business Insider at the Detroit auto show. Regarding the Ghosn situation, he took a business-as-usual stance, emphasizing Nissan's focus.

Read more: Nissan's big sales dip in April shouldn't have surprised anybody

Some analysts are losing confidence in the US market's robust sales, which topped 17 million in 2018 for a fourth consecutive year. They expect sales to decline from near-record levels, either because pent-up demand from the financial crisis has been exhausted or because interest rates have been ticking higher.

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Not Le Vot. "We see a continued plateauing, around 17 million," he said. "Which is a high number. But what we foresee in 2019 isn't a major change."

Challenges in the US market - but also opportunities

Denis Le Vot Nissan

Getty Images/Bill Pugliano

Nissan North American chairman Denis Le Vot.

Sales volumes are one thing, profits margins are another.

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"We'll have to see how far the market goes," he said.

But he expressed substantial confidence in Nissan's ability to compete, especially with fresh vehicle designs hitting the market. Le Vot pointed out that 70% of the carmaker's lineup would be renewed through 2019 and 2020.

"That's most of it," he said, highlighting updates to the Murano SUV along with the Maxima and Altima sedans.

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In the US, where consumers have turned to crossovers and SUVs in a big way and where automakers are killing off sedans, Nissan is sticking with four-doors. But it also has two of the bestselling crossovers available in the Rogue and Rogue Sport; over 400,000 rolled off dealer lots in 2018.

And Nissan has updated the Leaf, its longtime all-electric offering, bulking up the battery and improving its range to 226 miles on a single charge.

"Leaf opens the way to new models," Le Vot said, calling the pioneering car "older and wiser." According to him, eight new electric vehicles will be coming from Nissan between 2019 and 2022. More importantly, they'll sit on a dedicated, fully electric platform, enabling easier and less-expensive engineering.

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"It's challenging, no doubt," he said of the 2019 outlook. But by leveraging new products and capitalizing on consumer enthusiasm for new technology, he expects Nissan's US business to hold up.

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