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Nissan North America's Nissan division, hurt by bland design dictated from Japan in the '90s, is getting an image boost from the Xterra sport utility.

Designed with the U.S. in mind, Xterra is exceeding projections, says Gary Van Houten, the model line manager overseeing all launch activities. Last fiscal year, Nissan planned to sell 48,000 units but sold nearly 67,000 instead.

Even more importantly, the truck is attracting first-timers to the brand, with 80% of early Xterra buyers new to Nissan. The SUV, which went on sale last June, is bringing a "halo effect" to the entire lineup and has helped boost brand awareness and purchase intentions, Mr. Van Houten says.

The prelaunch was among the brand's most extensive, starting nearly a year before Xterra went on sale. It got its own Web site and plenty of early online advertising via site sponsorships.

Teaser print ads in early 1999 from TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., directed prospects to the Web site, a toll-free phone number or business reply card. By May 1, 1999, the car marketer had already collected 65,000 names from hand-raisers wanting more info about the SUV.

Prospects got a series of direct mailings to maintain interest. One offered a free vehicle accessory to consumers who put down deposits before May 31. TV teaser spots featured Jerry Hirshberg, Nissan's design chief, who had just started as brand pitchman two months before.

The marketing was directed at active, outdoorsy types between the ages of 25 and 35.

"We were going to a place where Nissan hadn't gone before, into very, very targeted publications," Mr. Van Houten says.

Also model line manager of the Nissan Pathfinder, he admits he was extremely nervous that Xterra would cannibalize sales of the bigger SUV. But Pathfinder sales rose by 5% in fiscal 1999.

He insisted Xterra get a sustaining ad campaign this year, almost comparable to launch, because mass marketers such as Ford Motor Co. are about to launch competitors.

"We have some strong competitors coming up," he says. "But we are the authentic off-road vehicle. We're the real deal."

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