Future drive: Nissan SA MD Mike Whitfield says a formal decision on product plans will be taken later in 2018. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
Future drive: Nissan SA MD Mike Whitfield says a formal decision on product plans will be taken later in 2018. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

Japanese motor company Nissan will manufacture the upmarket Navara pick-up in SA from 2020, sources in the company say.

The South African subsidiary would continue, they said, to build its two existing products, the NP300 one-ton bakkie popularly known as Hardbody, and the NP200 small bakkie.

Nissan SA MD Mike Whitfield told reporters that a formal decision on product plans would be taken later in 2018. Insiders, however, said it had been agreed the company’s Rosslyn, Pretoria assembly plant would build the three products.

It has been an open secret for years that Navara is the preferred product for Rosslyn, which builds only bakkies. The double-cab Navara, which is imported, competes against top-end versions of the Toyota Hilux and Ford Ranger, which are produced in SA and therefore available in bigger volumes.

Rosslyn has been manufacturing the current Hardbody model for 10 years and is the only Nissan plant in the world still doing so. Normally, it would be phased out, but Whitfield said there was still demand for it in African markets wanting "solid, reliable, go-anywhere" vehicles.

It is Nissan SA’s main export product, almost exclusively to Africa, and Whitfield said it made sense to keep supplying it as long as there was demand.

The NP200 is also ageing, by motor industry standards, but is the only high-volume small bakkie left in the local market following the demise of the Ford Bantam and, at the end of 2017, the Chevrolet Ute.

Nissan SA has been procrastinating for some years on its Rosslyn plans. Like General Motors SA (GMSA), Nissan SA’s production volumes have dipped in recent years and, after GMSA’s mid-2017 announcement of its disinvestment at the end of the year, there was talk of Nissan SA following suit.

Whitfield said on Wednesday, however, that there was never any question about the company’s local future. Instead, low-key investments worth nearly R1bn in plant upgrades and worker training over the past three years had prepared Rosslyn for expansion.

Manufacturing director Joan Busquets said the plant had been named the global Nissan group’s most improved plant three years in a row.

With the exception of Isuzu SA, which has bought GMSA’s local assets, Nissan SA is SA’s lowest-volume mass manufacturer by some distance. Last year, it built 40,000 vehicles — a number Whitfield expected to increase to 45,000 in 2018.

Where other SA motor companies operate two or three daily shift at their plants, Rosslyn needs one. However, with Nissan SA upping sales and market share, and a new product on the way, Whitfield expected further acceleration in production.

In 2017, Nissan SA had its best sales year since 2000. Market share across all vehicle categories rose to 10%, while bakkies improved by nearly 20% to 19.5%. Sub-Saharan Africa sales also grew.