Datsun cars and Tata Nano have many similarities. Both were targeted at the masses who would upgrade from two-wheelers to four. Both were among India’s most affordable cars. Both were perceived as cheap, not aspirational. Both were launched with fanfare and both have been discontinued.
What is Datsun?
Datsun, whose original production run began in 1931, is a brand owned by Nissan. Until 1986, only vehicles exported outside Japan by Nissan were identified as Datsun. In 1986, Nissan phased out the brand. In 2013, Nissan revived it. Because Datsun was targeted at the aspirational middle classes of developing nations, India was chosen as the launchpad, the first car being the Go, which couldn’t sell much. Then it launched the Go+, which too failed. The third offering was the Redi-Go.
Now, unfortunately, Datsun is Redi to Go from India!
March 2014 (Go)
The Go was launched in March 2014 at Rs 3.12 lakh (ex-showroom). An alternative to Maruti Suzuki Alto K10 (Rs 3.19 lakh) and Hyundai Eon (Rs 2.83 lakh), the Go was bigger and came across as a lot of car for little money. Styling-wise it wasn’t exciting, but the Go (3,785 mm in length and 1,635 mm in width) was bigger than the Alto K10 (3,620 by 1,475 mm) and the Eon (3,495 by 1,550 mm).Its cabin was functional but looked archaic. For example, the front seat was a bench (from Hindustan Ambassador era) and rear seatbelts didn’t have an inertia reel but were fixed ones and had to be adjusted by different users. It shared engine with the Micra (the noisy 1.2-litre, three-cylinder, petrol engine, but fuel efficient at 20.6 km/litre).
March 2016 (Go+)
As the Go was trying to find its feet in the Indian market, in March 2016 Datsun launched the Go+, priced Rs 3.79 lakh. A seven-seat, sub-4 metre car, it was an extended version of the Go—a hatch with an extra thatch. It had a third row, with two extra seats, but was unsafe for occupants. Because Datsun had to meet seatbelt regulations, it installed a two-point seatbelt (like you get on aircraft seats), instead of the three-point one for cars. A two-point seatbelt reduced costs, because a three-point seatbelt would have meant re-engineering rear pillars or seat backs, but more than that it ‘reduced’ the company’s Japanese image of a good-quality carmaker.
Datsun cars had some positives. While the Go and the Go+ didn’t get passive safety features such as airbags, ABS and a collapsible steering column, not even as an option, these had a lot of active safety features, which can help avoid accidents in the first place—such as headlights providing better illumination in width and depth at night compared to many other cars, better brakes thus reduced braking distance, better visibility all around that can help prevent accidents, among others.
June 2016 (Redi-Go)
When these two cars failed to generate enough buyer interest, Datsun brought its best to India, the Redi-Go (a fusion of a compact crossover car with an urban hatchback).Datsun called it the Yukan design (roughly translated in Japanese as brave and bold). It had best-in-class ground clearance of 185 mm, was the most spacious car in its segment—more headroom and legroom than that in the Alto, Eon and Renault Kwid (the newest kid on the block), and the rear legroom was even more than in the Swift Dzire, a sedan. It also had a modern dashboard, with functionalities such as a digital tachometer and a drive computer that showed you instantaneous and average fuel-efficiency, distance to empty, fuel remaining, and gear-shift indicator. The top-end variant got an audio system with radio, CD, MP3, USB, Aux-in, and front power windows. It was priced also right (just Rs 2.38 lakh), shared engine with the Kwid (799cc) and had a claimed fuel efficiency of very good 25.17 km/litre. Essentially, everything that was missing in the Go and the Go+ found its way into the Redi-Go. Datsun was clearly more Redi this time around, but soon found it had nowhere to Go. At that time, according to sales data by the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), India used to have 1.3 million two-wheeler buyers, and even if Datsun was able to convert a fraction of them to four-wheelers, its job would have been done. But that was not to be.
Datsun sales outlets
Datsun was selling cars from its exclusive 1S outlets (by 2016, it had 51 such outlets). It also sold cars via Nissan’s 215 dealerships in 165 cities. It was developing its presence in tier-2 and tier-3 cities. But the hit the brand value took with the Go and the Go+ couldn’t be revived by the Redi-Go. In 2016, Guillaume Sicard, the president of Nissan India who also led business development at Datsun, told FE that to succeed in India it’s very important to win consumer confidence (https://bit.ly/3v28I6H). “A prospective customer may like the design, but if she hasn’t heard about the brand, why will she buy it?” he said. The Datsun brand, he admitted at the time, “has not been established and the level of awareness is still not where we want it to be. ”Harish Bijoor, brand expert and founder of Harish Bijoor Consults, said that Nissan started quite well in India, but its offerings (especially under the Datsun brand) got classified into a lower price:quality equity range. “That can be deadly in the medium term,” he said. “Automotive is a funny market. Everyone wants the best quality and the best image in their garage. Price is, however, a secret they want to keep. Price sets image. And image sets franchise.”
The 2017 rise
With the ‘right’ product, the Redi-Go, sales of Datsun cars grew. In November 2017, it sold its 100,000th car in India, and by December 2017 Datsun was accounting for 75% of total sales for the Nissan brand in India (as per SIAM sales data). But Datsun didn’t have a product after the Redi-Go.
Auto analysts FE talked to said that the Carlos Ghosn scandal in November 2018 (when he, as chairman of Nissan, was arrested in Japan on allegations of underreporting his salary and misuse of company assets) was the final nail in the coffin for Datsun. Post that arrest, Nissan went through a restructuring and the company decided to focus on one brand (Nissan) and gradually phase out the other. Datsun was first phased out from Russia and Indonesia in 2020, and from India now (these are the only three markets where Datsun was being manufactured). Exit from India also implies demise of Datsun globally.
Nissan has assured its existing Datsun customers of continued support with service, aftermarket parts and warranty services. In a statement, it said, “We can reassure all existing and future Datsun owners that customer satisfaction remains our priority, and we will continue to provide the highest levels of aftersales service, parts availability and warranty support from our national dealership network.”