TOKYO -- With little fanfare, Nissan Motor Co. launched a hybrid vehicle in Japan last week.
It got scant attention because it's a truck and not built by Nissan. But it puts Nissan, however tentatively, into an important segment for hybrids.
Hybrids deliver the best fuel economy in stop-and-start urban driving. Frequent stops feed energy to the batteries through regenerative braking. Hybrids use an internal combustion engine and batteries to power the wheels.
Commercial vehicles therefore are far better applications for hybrid powertrains than are passenger cars, says Philip Gott. He is director of automotive consulting at Global Insight, a London market-research firm.
Gott's ideal hybrid vehicle is a garbage truck, bus or light- or medium-duty delivery truck.
The Nissan Atlas 20 hybrid is a medium-duty delivery truck. Isuzu Motors Ltd. manufactures the Atlas 20, including the new hybrid model, for Nissan.
"We have it not for reasons of profitability but for reasons of customers' requirements," says Andy Palmer, Nissan's vice president in charge of the light-commercial vehicle unit. Some Japanese fleet customers required a hybrid option. If Nissan wanted to bid on those customers' business, it had to offer a hybrid truck.
Palmer predicts sales of "a handful," meaning about 30, hybrid Atlas 20s a year. It is offered only in Japan.
Still, that will give Nissan valuable experience in selling and servicing hybrids, Palmer says. "Hybrids seem to have a place in this kind of a market," he says.
But Nissan doesn't see hybrids as the sole solution to higher fuel prices. Says Palmer, "We think there's a place for efficient diesel engines, for gasoline engines, for hybrids, for CNG (compressed natural gas) and for biodiesel."
Biodiesel fuel is made from renewable sources, such as corn.
In urban, heavy-duty applications, the Atlas 20 Hybrid delivers 35 percent better fuel economy than the conventional Atlas 20 along with a 25 percent drop in carbon dioxide emissions. In normal city driving, the fuel economy increase is 10 to 20 percent.
The Atlas 20 Hybrid employs a parallel-type hybrid system in which the motor/generator is connected to a different driveshaft from the engine for reliable operation. Even if a failure occurs in the hybrid system, the vehicle still can be driven using the 4.8-liter diesel engine.
The Atlas 20 Hybrid uses 346-volt lithium-ion batteries that last about three times longer than nickel-metal hydride batteries. The low weight of the batteries also ensures that there is little impact on the payload of the vehicle.
You may e-mail James B. Treece at [email protected]