Nissan Skeptical About Hybrids



Even after pulling the wraps off its first hybrid-electric vehicle at the Los Angeles auto show, Nissan remains skeptical about the market for the high-mileage technology.


The automaker will offer its Altima Hybrid in just eight states, marketing boss Jan Thompson told, though if demand exceeds initial expectations, she added, “It’s very possible” to expand to other parts of the U.S. “What we don’t want to do is create a glut of these (vehicles) where we have to heavily incentivize them,” cautioned Thompson, pointing to the deals other makers, notably Ford, have had to come up with to move their own hybrid offerings.


But the Nissan executive acknowledged that there is growing interest, among American motorists, in “green” vehicles. “People who see the Al Gore movie” about global warming, “the first thing they say is, ‘What have we got that’s green?’” The question, cautioned Thompson, is “What happens to hybrids…as gas prices go down?” It becomes harder for consumers to justify the hybrid premium at $2 a gallon, rather than $3, she says.


Nissan is likely to offer more hybrids going forward, hinted Thompson, and it is studying how it might differentiate products sold through its Nissan and Infiniti channels. It is possible that the luxury brand might follow a strategy similar to that of Lexus. Toyota’s own, high-line brand has put an emphasis on performance, over mileage, with hybrids like the GS400h.


During a wide-ranging discussion, Thompson said that 2007 will be a critical time for Nissan. The automaker is counting on an array of new products to help it regain the momentum it lost in 2006. Its timing is good, the executive insisted, with the launch of passenger cars like the Versa, Sentra, and Altima. “If we were launching big, heavy trucks right now,” said Thompson, “we’d have a problem.” At the same time, she asserted that Nissan’s truck lineup, including the Titan pickup, Armada SUV, and Quest minivan, have done better in the U.S. market than many analysts give credit. The Titan, in particular, “is not the failure people think it is,” she asserted, while acknowledging, “We could be doing better.”


In a separate interview, Brad Bradshaw, Nissan’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, suggested that the imminent launch of the next-generation Toyota Tundra could actually help his own company’s full-size pickup. “It’s been tough being a pioneer” in the domestic-dominated, full-size pickup segment, suggested Bradshaw. A “credible” offering from Toyota would help convince potential customers that Japanese pickups can stand up to the offerings of Detroit, said the executive. Bradshaw added that Nissan hopes to expand the Titan’s appeal with additional body styles and the likely addition of a high-mileage diesel engine. The automaker may eventually add diesels to other product lines, as well.


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