DECHERD, Tenn. - Nissan's next Altima will give U.S. powertrain suppliers a new shot at business over the next year.
Officials at Nissan Motor Manufacturing Corp. U.S.A. say the carmaker is replacing several Japanese and Mexican suppliers with U.S. suppliers at the company's new Decherd, Tenn., powertrain plant, which will supply Altima engines and transmissions.
Nissan is currently working to qualify 70 North American suppliers for engine and transmission parts. Production of the new 2.4-liter four-cylinder Altima engine began this month, replacing Altima engines that were built in Mexico using a large share of Japanese parts.
The Altima transaxle will launch next March at the $80 million Decherd facility. The plant will build up to 200,000 engines a year, and about 300,000 transaxles. About 100,000 of the transaxles will be used in the Nissan Quest/Mercury Villager minivan built by Ford Motor Co.
At plant opening ceremonies in Decherd this month, Jerry Benefield, president and CEO of the manufacturing company, said the redesigned 1998 Altima will be 80 percent domestic, compared with less than 75 percent for the current version.
That in itself is a milestone for the Smyrna, Tenn., automaker. Bumping up the Altima's domestic content level will make the car Nissan's first 'domestic' vehicle under EPA standards.
Nissan has kept the Altima's North American content level under the 75 percent mark since the car came out in 1992. As a result, it was categorized as an import under federal corporate average fuel economy standards.
Nissan feared that if the content level rose above 75 percent, Nissan would run afoul of CAFE rules, Benefield said.
Under CAFE, an automaker's import car fleet and domestic car fleet both must have an average fuel economy of 27.5 mpg. If the average is above that, the carmaker is subject to fines on each vehicle sold.
In theory, keeping a car like the Altima as an import helps balance Nissan Motor Corp. U.S.A.'s fleet against such fuel-thirsty cars as the Infiniti Q45.
'But after producing it for a few years, we discovered that the Altima is really CAFE-neutral. It works out to be right around 27.5,' Benefield said. 'If it had been 30, we would have left it in.'
PARTS OUT FOR REBID
The decision to make the car domestic gave Nissan a green light to re-source many of the powertrain's non-North American parts. Nissan also decided to put the system's Mexican-made parts out for rebid. Had Nissan kept the Mexican content, Benefield said, the 1998 Altima would be closer to 85 percent North American.
Nissan officials say that few of the company's traditional Japanese suppliers of automatic transmission parts operate North American factories. That gives U.S. and Canadian firms an advantage. The only other Japanese automaker to build automatic transmissions in North America is Honda Motor Co.
Michael Aslanian, president of Eagle Picher Automotive's Hillsdale Tool Division, said his firm has already been awarded the business to supply an oil pump assembly to the transaxle. That business required Hillsdale to build a plant near Decherd in Manchester, Tenn.
'This is one of the most demanding projects we've had,' Aslanian said. 'Our oil pump must perform like the pump now made in Japan.'