Nissan is likely to start producing a new generation of hybrid-electric vehicles at its assembly plant in Smyrna, Tennessee in the near future.
The Infiniti JX is among the first models assembled in the U.S. that will be equipped with Nissan’s new 1-motor/2-clutch hybrid system, senior sources told TheDetroitBureau.com. Other American-made models, including the new Altima and Pathfinder, along with next-generation versions of the Rogue and Murano may also add hybrid drivelines in the near future.
But countering some newly published reports, the batteries for the hybrids will likely continue to be imported from Japan despite the recent launch of a new lithium-ion plant alongside the sprawling Smyrna factory complex.
During a conversation at the 2013 North American International Auto Show, Nissan Motor Co. Executive Vice President Andy Palmer hinted it is “feasible” to build hybrids in the U.S. He also said that it would be possible to source the batteries out of the Smyrna facility, as well, but stressed there are currently “no plans” to do so.
For the moment, the Smyrna battery plant is specifically dedicated to producing lithium-ion packs for the Nissan Leaf battery-electric vehicle.
The batteries that will go into the upcoming Nissan hybrid models make use of a different chemistry than those that go into the Leaf. Battery-electric vehicles use a formulation that puts the emphasis on range, something that engineers describe as high “energy density.” Hybrids need batteries with high “power-density.” In other words, they focus on getting energy in and out of the battery pack as quickly as possible, even if that reduces range.
As a result, Leaf batteries produced in Smyrna wouldn’t necessarily be used in future Nissan hybrid models. The plant would have to gear up for a different formulation of lithium-ion batteries. That is, indeed, feasible, well-placed sources explain, but likely wouldn’t happen for several years.
In the meantime, any hybrid batteries used on U.S. assembly lines would continue being produced in Japan by Nissan’s preferred supplier, Hitachi.
Until recently, Nissan has shied away from hybrid technology. It had offered only one gas-electric model, a version of the previous-generation Altima using drivetrain technology licensed from Toyota – a costly solution that helps explain the maker’s reluctance.
Nissan has now developed a new hybrid system that uses one electric motor and twin clutches that it claims can deliver a better ride and improved fuel economy when compared to the decade-old Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive system. Last month, Nissan officials announced plans to challenge Toyota by introducing 15 different hybrid models – even as the maker prepares to expand its battery-electric line, starting with a luxury version of the Leaf that will be marketed by the upscale Infiniti division.
The Infiniti JX, a 3-row crossover, will likely be the first Nissan model assembled in the U.S. to get a hybrid option, TheDetroitBureau.com has learned, but with Nissan planning to emphasize local production as much as possible for the American market, that means other products will quickly come onboard.
The new Altima sedan is a critical one, especially with Nissan aiming to topple rival Toyota Camry as the best-selling midsize sedan in the American market. The Toyota Camry has gained significant momentum since the sedan line was redesigned in late 2011 and Nissan needs a direct competitor to its Hybrid model.
Nissan officials have done little to hide their plans to add a hybrid option to the all-new Pathfinder crossover-utility vehicle. And they have signaled their plans to offer gas-electric driveline options on two other crossover lines with recent hybrid-powered concept versions. The Hi-Cross Concept unveiled last year is a thinly disguised version of the Nissan Rogue replacement. Meanwhile the Nissan Resonance Concept now on display at the Detroit Auto Show will reappear in production trim as the next-generation Murano.
How quickly Nissan might switch hybrid battery production from Japan to the U.S. is uncertain, sources emphasized. It could depend upon how well the Leaf does now that production has shifted to the States.
Sales of the battery car were “a disappointment” in 2012, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn admitted during a media roundtable in Detroit. But the maker is betting it can reach the “tipping point” by lowering prices this year. That is possible because U.S. production will minimize shipping costs and eliminate the exchange rate penalty of a weak dollar and strong yen.
Nissan has announced a lower-priced base version of the Leaf – while also cutting prices on the original models. With the upcoming addition of the Infiniti LE electric vehicle it hopes to keep the Smyrna battery plant busy. But the facility could be adapted to produce hybrid batteries, as well, to boost capacity utilization. That move would also help lower costs compared to importing hybrid packs from Japan.