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.