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Meet the Dubliner planning Nissan’s European future

Cliodhna Lyons has gone from designing combustion engines to laying out an all-electric future

Cliodhna Lyons of Nissan Europe

Nissan has decided that its future, at least in Europe, is fully electric. That’s hardly a surprise — European legislation will ensure that from 2030 or thereabouts, all cars sold in Europe will have to be fully-electric, so you could say the decision was made for Nissan, and the rest.

It wasn’t that simple, of course. Nissan, as a company, does not stand alone. It’s part of a global conglomerate that also includes brands such as Renault, Dacia and Mitsubishi. The decision could so easily have been that Nissan should quit an all-electric Europe, leaving that to Renault and Dacia, and instead concentrate on its more traditionally successful markets of Japan and the US.

I wasn’t a car nut at that stage, and I’d come from an all-girls secondary school so I suppose I wasn’t immersed in that culture.

Thankfully that hasn’t happened and Nissan is not only staying in Europe, it’s launching a slew of new, high-tech models. The all-electric Ariya crossover is just arriving in Ireland, as are new hybrid versions of the Qashqai and the new X-Trail SUVs. An all-electric Micra is on the way and by 2025 we will have the third generation of Nissan’s Leaf electric car, which will morph from its current hatchback shape into something a little more SUV-ish.

The person pulling all of these disparate model threads together is Cliodhna Lyons. A native of Cabinteely in Dublin, Lyons is based at Nissan’s European HQ in Paris and holds the title of vice-president of product and services planning for Europe, Middle East, Africa, India, and Oceania. That’s a vast territory to cover and much work needs to be done to bring those areas outside of Europe into the electric car world. The small irony in Lyons’ role is that she started as a combustion engineer.


“I grew up in a household with a maths teacher and a physics teacher as parents, so it was a very maths-y house,” Lyons tells The Irish Times. “When I got to university, I loved engineering and maths because of their logic. I wasn’t a car nut at that stage, and I’d come from an all-girls secondary school so I suppose I wasn’t immersed in that culture. But in our house, there was never a question about ability or gender. I was just encouraged to go and do it, with no reference nor context of ‘Oh, you’re a female, why would you choose that path?’”

Lyons studied mechanical engineering at University College Dublin and says that by the time she was wrapping up her degree, the car bug had bitten. “As I was doing the various subjects in engineering, the ones I really loved were around combustion and automotive, transport and infrastructure. It was not an obvious choice, considering that in Ireland there is no huge automotive industry or certainly there wasn’t when I was leaving in 2001.” Knowing she’d have to leave home to join the car industry, Lyons stayed on to get a PhD in engineering, and then started work with the Nissan powertrains development team in Barcelona in 2005.

Her first task was to calibrate Nissan’s 1.5-litre diesel engine for better emissions so that it could be used in the Micra and Note models. Oddly, Lyons never actually met Nissan’s other significant Irish hire at the time, engineer David Twohig from Cork who would do so much work to bring the first Qashqai to production before moving on to work within Renault and Alpine. Lyons says that since then the two have become “LinkedIn buddies”.

Cliodhna Lyons of Nissan Europe

The launch of the first Qashqai in 2007 was a watershed moment for Nissan, propelling it from also-ran in European sales terms to smash-hit best seller. “I was still a very young engineer at that point, so to see that the company you’re working in is doing something so innovative and so different — it was fantastic,” says Lyons. “That Qashqai was born from Nissan management saying ‘no, be more different, do something really new’. It came from this big desire within the company to be innovative, to really stand out.

“The world was full of hatchbacks and that hatchback manoeuvrability and agility is appreciated and yet there’s safety as well and people like more room and more space, and people like a higher seat and appreciate an SUV for that element. So how do we take the top of an SUV and the bottom of a hatchback and put them together? It was really a moment where it was out-of-the-box thinking that was not only supported but actually pushed by the management, and then supported right the way through the programme. Then you launch a car and it’s got the reception that it had, it was just an amazing moment.”

Nissan will need several more of those if it’s to flourish in the coming years. Profits have fallen, and the company has been rocked by scandal in recent years with its former chief executive, Carlos Ghosn, accused of financial skulduggery, and held under house arrest in Japan until a dramatic escape saw him flee to his native Lebanon. All that must be turned around and the public convinced Nissan can do more than just the Qashqai.

“I don’t see that as pressure,” says Lyons. “I think it’s an absolute joy. Through the Qashqai, we know what works. To know that the competition have caught up, to know that we’re now in a whole different world where things have moved on, it keeps us on our toes. We know that we can’t rest on our laurels. We know that we have a huge number of loyal customers through Qashqai, but we can’t get lackadaisical about that. We don’t want to let those people down.”

For now, the Qashqai won’t go fully electric but rather will sit alongside the electric Ariya which is similar in size but rather more “premium” in look and feel. That’s not just, says Lyons, a decision based on the price bracket of each car, but a recognition that Nissan’s doesn’t and won’t just sell cars in electric-leaning Europe. “Obviously, there was a lot of debate in the company about what the strategy should be to electrify,” says Lyons. “I’m in Paris, you’re in Ireland, our part of Europe is electrifying at a very, very fast pace, especially Ireland and the Nordics, the Netherlands and so on. But it’s not the same in the rest of the world.”

That, says Lyons, is why Nissan decided to replace the old Qashqai’s diesel power with a new E-Power hybrid petrol engine, where the car’s electric motor does all of the driving and the petrol powerplant is on board to act as a generator. It’s not only more efficient than a plug-in hybrid reckons the company, but in theory it also acts as a better bridge to fully-electric motoring.

“Going back to the fact that Europe is electrifying much faster than other parts of the world, E-Power has been conceived as a global technology. And it has been conceived in a way that is bringing our customers to the future but that future will arrive at different moments depending on where you’re sitting in the world,” she says. “It’s a key building block in our long-term strategy globally where we bring our customers on this journey to final full electrification. But that’s going to happen at a different pace around the world.”

One worry is that this journey might leave behind some of Nissan’s traditional buyers, especially those who have flocked to the affordable Micra model over the years. A new Micra is coming, and will be built in France alongside the upcoming new Renault 5. Both models will be sold only as electric cars, and that flags a concern; can an electric car be as affordable to buy as a petrol-powered Micra, that bastion of older downsizers and young learner drivers, once was?

“Micra has always been such a strong model for us, and it’s kind of irreplaceable in its usage,” says Lyons.

“Will it be as affordable as in the past? Supply chains are difficult and raw material costs have increased enormously. But having said that, as we move into the future, there is an understanding that as the capacity for battery manufacturing grows, and there is an increased mining of raw materials, that actually the cost of some of those parts is going to decrease. So is this a case that we will be in the same price positioning as 10 years ago? Potentially not. But it’s not only driven by electrification. Actually if you look at the B-segment, taking Micra as an example, over the last 10 years the average car price of the B-segment has increased almost 100 per cent anyway. But we see absolute demand for those cars into the future. And we won’t scrimp and save, our customer satisfaction is key. And our quality is key, always. So we will still deliver the quality and calibre of car that we’ve always wanted to.”

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in motoring