Nissan showed off its 2014 Pathfinder hybrid at the 2013 New York Auto Show. (Nissan North America )
With the introduction of a new Pathfinder hybrid crossover at the New York Auto Show on Wednesday, Nissan signaled that it's going to once again move back into vehicles that have a combined gas and electric powertrain after nearly abandoning the technology to develop the all-electric Leaf compact car.
“It makes sense considering where consumer sentiment is and where fuel prices might go,” said Ken Kcomt, Nissan’s director of product planning for trucks and sport-utilities. “It is one of several hybrid models we will be introducing over several years.”
The new Pathfinder features a system that Nissan will also use for its upscale Infiniti QX60 crossover that was also launched at the show.
PHOTOS: Highlights of the 2013 New York Auto Show
With the exception of several hundred Infiniti M hybrids sold over the past year, Nissan basically pulled out of the market when it ended sales of its Altima hybrid sedan in 2011.
At the heart of the 2014 Pathfinder hybrid – which is offered in two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive models – are a supercharged 2.5-liter gasoline engine and an electric motor paired to a compact Lithium-ion battery. The system produces 250 horsepower and 243 pound-feet of torque, nearly the same as the gas-only Pathfinder.
Nissan said it will have an estimated fuel economy of 26 mpg overall, a 24% increase over the standard Pathfinder. The city fuel economy rating is 25 mpg, while highway mileage is estimated at 27.
The automaker could have gone for higher fuel ratings – the rival Toyota Highlander hybrid gets 28 mpg overall – but Nissan wanted to dial back the expense of the crossover.
“Our figures are very respectable,” Kcomt said. “It is looking at the total value proposition.”
The hybrid will go on sale by late summer, starting at about $35,000 for the front-wheel-drive version. That represents a $3,000 premium over the gas model. Toyota’s premium is at least double that.
Previously Nissan used a hybrid system licensed from Toyota, but this new powerplant was developed in-house and was designed to be more compact than what other automakers use. In the seven-passenger Pathfinder, the battery fits under the third-row seat and doesn’t eat away at the legroom and cargo space in the cabin.
“Our system is modular and scalable depending on the electric motor we want to pair with it and the battery size. It gives us a lot of flexibility to apply it to a lot of the vehicles in the lineup,” Kcomt said.
Relaunching its hybrid strategy with a crossover presents some risk for Nissan, said Jack Nerad, an analyst with auto information company Kelley Blue Book.
Hybrid SUVs have not sold well. The best-selling model is the Lexus RX 400h with sales of more than 11,000 in 2012.
“When push comes to shove, a lot of people see the premium price on hybrids and take a pause,” Nerad said. “Any type of premium limits demand.”
Kcomt sees it differently. By charging a smaller premium, the Pathfinder will be more attractive, and because there are so few models selling well, “There’s fertile ground for Nissan.”