Mike Drongowski of Nissan and Orth Hedrick of Kia traveled to the New York Auto Show to launch new iterations of the Nissan Maxima and Kia Optima. Each sedan reaches toward the premium end of the segment, and faces competition from a hidden source: within.
Coworkers on the West Coast in the 1990s, Drongowski and Hedrick parted paths after Nissan's relocation to Nashville. Each is responsible for positioning their respective brands' midsize crossovers and sedans. When the conversation approaches crossovers for context, each stops to gush over a segment that has become a center of excitement -- among customers, and apparently among industry insiders, too.
"Have you driven the new Sorento yet?" Hedrick asked, glancing over at the recently redesigned crossover. "You should really get inside."
The crossover form-factor is relatively new and trendy, considered aspirational among shoppers who are willing to pay to elevate their driving position and social status. Hedrick and Drongowski are clearly enthused by the opportunity. How, then, do sedans fit into the landscape?
"It's about life stage," Drongowski said. "People say, 'I have unmet utility needs in a sedan, and this packaging is new. Let's try a crossover.' Some people stay in a crossover. Some people move in and out of a crossover as their needs change."
Crossover buyers, Drongowski said, ultimately prioritize functionality. Their space needs supercede fuel economy concerns, especially as crossovers close the fuel efficiency gap. In contrast, Maxima shoppers rank styling ahead of utility and even durability, quality and reliability. Maxima customers' focus on fashion gave Nissan designers latitude to follow a particularly powerful styling path, clearly more expressive than its conservative competition.
Dramatic styling on the last-generation Optima catapulted Kia to desirability nearly overnight, transforming the brand from a value option into a first-choice destination among younger and more affluent buyers. The new Optima wears a restrained evolution of its predecessor's form, tracing a conservative tack while some competitors still race to pen more striking designs.
Optima buyers enamored by its lines expected Teutonic driving dynamics to match, Hedrick said, so the new car incorporates changed suspension mounting points and increased chassis and wheel rigidity. Rack-mounted electronic power steering marks an evolution of the fuel-saving technology, with a more connected feel than early power steering motors mounted inside the steering column near the wheel. Hedrick compared rack-mounted motors to "writing from your wrist instead of from your shoulder," and noted that only certain Optima trims would include the technology due to its expense.
Cloth seats are the only indicator that either sedan is in its base trim. Base Optima sedans comprise the bulk of the sales mix, and are equipped with Bluetooth connectivity, Sirius satellite radio and alloy wheels. Base Maxima sedans include a navigation system and remote engine start. Maxima shoppers often cross-shop with luxury nameplates, Drongowski said, causing the sales mix to skew toward upper trims. The Maxima's decades-long status as Nissan's flagship sedan -- once equipped from the factory with "4DSC" stickers denoting its status as a four-door sports car -- cemented its premium point-of-view.
"Forget as Nissan employees," Drongowski said. "As people who love cars, can we honestly call it a 4DSC? That was the mantra I carried to the design, styling, engineering and manufacturing organizations: Maxima exists to be special. If it's not special, let's do something else."
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