Detroit 2012: Nissan Executive Vice President Andy Palmer on Future Products, Technology

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Nissan opted not to hold a formal press conference at the Detroit auto show this year, but instead let journalists meet with company executives in smaller interview sessions. We sat down with Nissan executive vice president Andy Palmer to learn more about the company’s upcoming products and technologies. Nissan Pathfinder and Altima Debuting Soon “That’s production-representative, I would say,” Palmer said with regard to the Pathfinder concept twirling next to us on Nissan’s display stand. As is the case with the e-NV200 also debuting here in Detroit, Nissan’s two “concept” vehicles are just early previews of production models. The Pathfinder goes on sale in the fall; a small electric van like the e-NV200 would debut much, much later. Palmer also confirmed that the next-generation Altima midsize sedan will debut in the middle of this year, as a 2013 model. We won’t hear any more about the new model for some time. Nissan showed off a new hybrid drivetrain at the Tokyo Motor Show last fall, but Palmer wouldn’t say whether that will appear in the Altima. Plans to Improve Market Share in U.S. “I consider us to be underperforming until the day we reach ten percent market share,” Palmer said. Following steady gains over the past few years, Nissan’s market share in the U.S. currently hovers around 8.1 or 8.2 percent. Palmer says that the company can increase its sales in America by launching a range of strong products in a variety of different segments. To grow in the U.S., Nissan will launch 20 new or refreshed models over the next 24 months; once that is complete, about 70 percent of the company’s lineup will be new. And many of those vehicles will be built in North America -- that helps reduce costs, supply chains, and also protects Nissan from fluctuating exchange rates. The company also will put a renewed focus on having a consistent marketing message across vehicles and platforms. The key message, according to Palmer, is that “Nissan is the car of innovation and excitement for everyone.” More Electric Cars Are Coming Palmer credits the Leaf electric car with putting the rest of the Nissan lineup “into the spotlight” over the last year. Even though the company has only sold 20,000 Leafs so far, the electric hatchback “has gone a long way to changing perceptions of the company.” Executives understand that buzz over a new model like the Leaf only lasts so long, which explains why the company will introduce an electric van like the e-NV200 by 2013 or so. After that, luxury brand Infiniti will debut an all-electric sedan, and then Nissan will launch a new electric car later. The Nissan EV is “likely to be” a small city car, although it will debut after BMW’s i3 electric city car -- 2014 or later. No Small Sports Cars Despite many rumors to contrary, Palmer says that Nissan has no plans to build a small, rear-wheel-drive sports car. Developing such vehicles is expensive, and even though Nissan has a history of cheap rear-drive sports coupes (like the 240SX), the company probably won’t build another. The Nissan 370Z and GT-R will continue, and will likely be refreshed in line with typical vehicle life cycles. When asked whether those sports cars, like so many other new vehicles, will move toward hybrid or electric drive, Palmer won’t give a firm answer. “The only way that you’ll reduce CO2 on any vehicle over time will be with some form of electrification,” he says, “So there’s an inevitability towards hybrid or plug-in hybrid.” Collaboration with Daimler Palmer also helped explain the many collaborations between the Renault-Nissan alliance and Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler. First, Renault will supply the Kangoo small van to Mercedes in Europe; the companies also will collaborate on the next versions of the Smart and Renault Twingo. Daimler will supply three engines for Infiniti in Europe: a diesel inline-four and V-6, as well as a gasoline inline-four. Nissan also will build a Mercedes inline-four engine in Tennessee for use in certain future cars. Daimler also will help Infiniti build the Etherea concept car. It will be produced on Mercedes’ new MFA architecture (a front-wheel-drive chassis that underpins the A- and B-Class). More Continuously Variable Transmissions While many competitors are adopting dual-clutch transmissions to improve efficiency, Nissan plans to continue using continuously variable transmissions. The reason, in part, is because Nissan owns its CVT supplier JATCO, giving the company direct input on development. The company also believes that CVTs can offer better fuel economy than dual-clutch units for less money. “CVT technology is clearly moving on,” said Palmer. “If you start from CVTs, why would you take a retrograde step towards dual-clutch transmissions?” Nissan also will work on revising the software that controls its CVTs. That could enable more linear acceleration from the new transmissions, possibly by emulating gear steps. At the same time, Palmer says the company won’t abandon traditional automatic transmissions. He says the company would consider eight- or nine-speed autos in large vehicles (like trucks) or luxury cars. For more on the 2012 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, including videos, the latest photos, and more information, click here to visit our Detroit Show homepage.

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