Nissan joins hybrid parade
EV devotee plans 1 new model each year
Photo credit: HANS GREIMEL
OPPAMA, Japan -- For years, Nissan Motor Co. has been an advocate of electric vehicles while giving scant attention to the development of hybrid cars.
But a convergence of pressures is converting Nissan into a backer of the gasoline-electric drivetrains it once downplayed.
Tepid sales of electric cars, increasingly stringent emissions standards and an uptick in consumer demand for hybrids are forcing Nissan to change course.
The carmaker will introduce its first front-wheel-drive hybrid system developed in-house next year. It is expected to debut in the Infiniti JX crossover, which went on sale in the United States this year, or a similar-class vehicle.
A plug-in hybrid will follow in 2015. In addition, Nissan plans to propagate so-called microhybrid technologies, such as brake regeneration, across its lineup.
Nissan plans to add about one hybrid model a year over the next several years. And it is targeting big fuel-economy gains. Engineers say a vehicle equipped with its new hybrid system, for example, gets up to 30 percent better fuel economy than the same car's nonhybrid variant.
Nissan isn't interested in a stand-alone hybrid-only nameplate such as the Toyota Prius or Honda Insight, executives said.
In tapping hybrid technology, "Our aim is not how can we apply it to just a single vehicle, but extend it across the lineup as much as possible, as soon as possible," Mitsuhiko Yamashita, executive vice president for global r&d, told Automotive News.
"All vehicles need some form of electrification," he said. "Motor assistance is really key. Otherwise they can't meet fuel economy requirements beyond 2015."
Nissan's belated refocus tacitly acknowledges the success of hybrid market leaders who stole an early lead, such as Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. While sales of Nissan's Leaf electric vehicle have fallen short of targets, Toyota sells nearly 700,000 hybrids a year globally.
In hybrid-crazy Japan, the Toyota Prius has been the best-selling car for 16 straight months, while hybrid vehicles account for half of Honda's domestic sales.
Turning out more hybrids using lithium ion batteries also could help Nissan soak up some of the capacity at the three massive battery factories it will soon be operating worldwide. Those factories were built to make batteries for the Leaf. But with some tweaking they can produce hybrid vehicle batteries as well, Yamashita said.
Nissan already has a battery plant in Japan. It will soon open one each in the United States and Britain. The Smyrna, Tenn., plant begins production this fall and will have annual capacity of 200,000 battery modules.
It comes online at a time when Leaf sales in the United States are down 28 percent to a meager 5,212 through September, far off the annual sales target of 20,000.
Nissan has only one hybrid now: a variant of the Infiniti M sedan, plus a stretch version of the car offered in Japan. Nissan used to sell a hybrid Altima sedan. But that model relied on technology supplied by Toyota, and Nissan killed the car at the end of the 2011 model year.
Nissan offered some details about its new hybrid drivetrain while demonstrating it recently in an Infiniti JX at its proving ground here, south of Tokyo.
Like the existing rear-wheel-drive hybrid system that goes into the Infiniti M, the new one is a one-motor, two-clutch layout that draws power from a lithium ion battery.
In the M, the hybrid system teams with a 3.5-liter V-6 engine and a traditional automatic transmission.
The new system teams with a continuously variable transmission and either a 2.0-liter four-cylinder or a 2.5-liter supercharged inline four-cylinder engine, Nissan engineers said. The 2.5-liter hybrid will be the first to debut.
In the JX, the new hybrid system delivers fuel economy 20 to 30 percent better than in the standard JX, said Tatsuo Abe, senior manager for hybrid product development.
Nissan also plans a hybrid for the Altima, Abe said. He declined to give a timeline. "Of course we have a next plan for the Altima," he said. "We will maybe add a new [hybrid] model every year." Last year, CEO Carlos Ghosn said the company would start selling a plug-in hybrid as well. It is due in 2015, but engineers declined to give details.
Yamashita forecast that in mature markets nearly all of Nissan's nameplates will feature some sort of electrification by 2020. That ranges from pure electric drivetrains to gasoline-electric options to so-called microhybrid systems.
The latter consist mostly of stop-start and brake-regeneration systems that convert kinetic energy from braking into electricity, which then powers onboard electronics.
Many customers probably don't consider those features hybrid technologies. The term hybrid typically conjures the Toyota Prius, which uses gasoline and electricity to propel the car.
Yet Nissan, perhaps eager to tap the environment-friendly aura surrounding gasoline-electric vehicles, calls its application of microhybrid technologies S-Hybrid, with the S standing for smart and simple.
S-Hybrid debuted in August in the Nissan Serena, a Japan-market minivan. But Nissan sees the technology as a cheap and easy way to nudge fuel economy higher, and Yamashita plans a wider rollout.
Nissan said the system can hike fuel economy by as much as 10 percent at a cost of about $1,910 or less. That compares, Nissan said, with a 40 percent fuel economy boost from a full hybrid such as the Prius at an extra cost of about $6,370.
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