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Nissan Puts Resources Into the Hybrid Trend With a New Altima

October 05, 2006|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

Nissan Motor Co. rolled out its first hybrid car Wednesday, making it the last of the large Japanese automakers to field a fuel-efficient gasoline-electric vehicle.

The new Altima will be the 14th hybrid to hit the U.S. market since Honda Motor Co. kicked things off in 1999 with its two-seat Insight.

But Nissan isn't plunging deeply into the pool, as have Honda and Toyota Motor Corp., whose popular Prius, introduced in Japan in 1997 and the U.S. in 2000, has made it the global hybrid leader.

Toyota, which sells seven hybrids, has said it intends to be able to offer a hybrid version of every model it makes should it see a market opportunity.

Although many studies have shown that the cash hybrid owners can save on fuel doesn't compensate for the higher sticker prices they pay dealers, Toyota has said that increased sales can make the hybrids cost-effective.

Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn has said, though, that he can't make a business case for the expensive technology. The company, he has said, is building the Altima hybrid to satisfy California regulators' demands for reduced emissions and greater fuel efficiency from the major automakers.

Indeed, the Nissan hybrid initially will be sold only in California and the eight East Coast states that have adopted California's emission standards, the toughest in the world.

Nissan licensed Toyota's hybrid technology for the Altima but recently said that, despite Ghosn's reservations, it will develop its own hybrid system for vehicles to be launched after 2010.

The automaker has spent $10 million to adapt its Smyrna, Tenn., manufacturing plant to build hybrid Altimas alongside standard gasoline-engine versions of the car, which has been redesigned for 2007.

Nissan unveiled the hybrid Altima at the Orange County Auto Show, which runs through Sunday at the Anaheim Convention Center.

The 2007 model, scheduled to hit showrooms early next year, is a front-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan built on Nissan's new mid-size car platform.

Its hybrid drive marries the Altima's base 158-horsepower, four-cylinder gasoline engine to a 40-horsepower electric drive system licensed from Toyota.

Nissan added its own continually variable transmission, a "shift-less" automatic that maximizes fuel economy by using variable-diameter pulleys instead of individual gears to keep the engine revving in the optimum range at all times.

The company expects the hybrid Altima to deliver as much as 41 miles per gallon in city driving and 36 mpg on the highway.

Nissan has not announced pricing for the hybrid or the standard Altima.

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