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[Herald Interview] Nissan Korea chief enjoys best year

Japanese auto giant bets big on diesel models to win customers

Takehiko Kikuchi, president of Nissan Korea, said he had the most exciting and memorable moments of his career over the past year as its Korean business gained sales momentum.

“It was the most exciting year of my life,” Kikuchi recalled during an interview with The Korea Herald. He joined the Korean unit of the Japanese auto giant last July.

With the successful launches of several new models ranging from the Nissan Juke crossover to the Infiniti Q50 sports sedan, Nissan and its luxury sibling Infiniti are enjoying a sales boom here after years of sluggish sales.

Nissan sold 2,091 vehicles in the first half of this year, up almost 50 percent from a year ago, while Infiniti sales more than tripled to 1,359 vehicles. 
Nissan Korea president Takehiko Kikuchi poses at the carmaker’s headquarters in Yeoksam-dong, southern Seoul, Friday. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)
Nissan Korea president Takehiko Kikuchi poses at the carmaker’s headquarters in Yeoksam-dong, southern Seoul, Friday. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)

During the same period, its Japanese rivals such as Toyota and Honda suffered more than 30 percent in losses on their Korean sales.

“I think customers still have trust in the product quality of Japanese carmakers. But they failed to meet the evolving demands in the market, including those for diesel cars,” said the Nissan veteran, who has worked at the carmaker for 23 years.

“For us, the diesel-powered Infiniti Q50 arrived at the right time to drive up our sales overall.”

Armed with unique styling and powerful performance, the Q50 is like a breath of fresh air for the nation’s premium segment largely dominated by the German big three ― BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi.

Since hitting the market in February, Infiniti has sold 1,105 Q50s in Korea, led by its diesel version. In June alone, its monthly sales soared to 391 cars, a record for the Infiniti brand here.

“I wouldn’t say we are competing head-on with the traditional German luxury brands. We still aspire to mimic their success story but in our own way by offering a more dynamic luxury for customers,” Kikuchi said.

As part of its upscale push, Infiniti moved its headquarters to Hong Kong from Japan in 2012, becoming an autonomous subsidiary of Nissan with a largely non-Japanese management team.

The four-time Formula One champion Sebastian Vettel also joined the brand as performance director.

Korea is currently the sixth-largest market for Infiniti, after the United States, China, Canada, Russia and Dubai.

The Japanese executive agreed that it would be a strategic decision for Korea’s Hyundai Motor to have a luxury brand. But he added that building heritage is a difficult, time-consuming process, even for the 25-year-old Infiniti.

Despite the dominance of the Korean auto giant and its affiliate Kia Motors here, the Nissan chief expressed confidence in future success.

“It is unique globally, as homegrown brands (tend to) dominate almost 80 percent of car sales,” he said. “But customers would want more options to choose from, which means more opportunities for us.”

Kikuchi has pinned especially high hopes on the upcoming Nissan Qashqai crossover, the brand’s first diesel car, to take advantage of the recent soaring compact sport utility vehicle market here.

As marketing chief in China, Kikuchi led the Chinese debut of the Qashqai in 2008. Since then, the model has been one of the top-selling Nissan cars in China, selling some 10,000 units every month.

The Nissan Leaf, the best-selling full-electric compact, is also finalizing its entry plan into the market at the end of this year.

“We are in talks on building charging infrastructure together with the Jeju government,” he said, adding that government support, including generous incentives and widely available charging networks, is crucial for expanding EV sales.

Buoyed by the latest sales momentum in Korea, the Nissan chief recently adjusted this year’s sales goal to 4,500 vehicles for Nissan and 3,000 for Infiniti here.

“For now, our priority is selling more cars, turning to a surplus as soon as possible. We will be expanding investment into our dealership network and corporate social responsibility activities in the coming years,” he said.

By Lee Ji-yoon (
Korea Herald Youtube