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Nissan And Why It's In the Catbird Seat

Monday, 21 Jul 2008 | 8:52 AM ET
Nissan
Nissan

It may be the number one question I get from people when they ask about the struggling U.S. automakers: Who would want these guys if they ever go belly up or get sold?

While I still believe GM, Ford,and Chrysler can dig their way out of this mess, I also realize that they are dangerously close to getting picked off. Don't give me the song and dance that these guys are too big to die, be split up, or outright sold.

Every company has its price, and despite all their flaws, Detroit's Big 3 have a LOT of value. Especially to a foreign automaker looking to solidify or establish itself in the U.S., still the world's largest and most lucrative auto market.

Which brings us to Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn. Today in Nashville, Ghosn will open Nissan's new North American headquarters and in many ways it's symbolic of a new day dawning for Nissan. After muddling through the last couple of years, Ghosn's company is doing much better than the big three, and it's sales are, for the most part, holding up in a down market.

So why is Ghosn sitting in the catbird seat? He's there because he has the financial strength, need, and I suspect, the desire to expand in the U.S. Nissan's truck business is its weak link. So what happens if Chrysler's parent decides it's time to split up the struggling automaker? Or if Ford finds itself in a nasty financial bind where it needs to partner with a foreign automaker? You get the picture. Ghosn's in a position where he could get access to America's profitable pick-up market.

That doesn't mean Nissan is about to strike a deal. But I think you'd be foolish to discount the possibility of Nissan's leader looking for North American expansion. Ghosn's long coveted a "partner" in the U.S. GM was a forced situation a few years ago. This time, the circumstances are different.

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com

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  • Phil LeBeau is a CNBC auto and airline industry reporter based in the Chicago bureau and editor of the Behind the Wheel section on CNBC.com.

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