YOKOSUKA, Japan--Nissan's first in-house hybrid will arrive in 2010 with an Infiniti badge, but its project manager concedes that he has many kinks to iron out.
During a prototype test drive for journalists last week, the hybrid car suffered awkward lags when the engine kicked in to help the electric motor. Deceleration also was jerky because of battery regeneration.
"We still have a few issues with this development vehicle," says Tatsuo Abe, manager of Nissan's hybrid engineering unit. "We need to make some adjustments before 2010."
Nissan is pinning its hopes on the new hybrid system to help it catch Toyota and Honda in the green-car race. To date, Nissan's only hybrid is a version of the Altima car equipped with a Toyota-developed system.
Nissan's own hybrid technology will debut in an Infiniti, but it is too soon to say what model, says Atsushi Shizuta, vice president for product development. It won't be a stand-alone hybrid like the Toyota Prius but, instead, will be a hybrid version of a regular nameplate.
It wasn't clear whether the hybrid might be part of a new nameplate. The test version was an Infiniti G35.
Nissan's pursuit of big-car hybrids charts a different course from its Japanese rivals, which have enjoyed hybrid success mostly in such small cars as the Prius and Honda Civic.
Honda pitched the performance of its Accord Hybrid sedan but dumped the model at the end of the 2007 model year after lackluster sales. Honda is now planning a hybrid Fit small car, which should achieve excellent fuel economy.
Nissan makes no apologies for its first entry being a V-6, rear-drive luxury sedan.
"Toyota is the current leader, and one of our intentions is to approach hybrids from a different angle," Shizuta said. "This is as much about power assist as it is about fuel economy."
Nissan's electric motor is powered by a lithium ion battery, which weighs less and has more power than the nickel-metal hydride batteries used in the current generation of hybrids.
Nissan's lithium ion battery weighs 50 kilograms (110 pounds) and can power the car for up to 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) in electric-only mode after a full charge. By contrast, Toyota and Honda are sticking with nickel-metal hydride batteries for their next-generation hybrids due next year.
Nissan's research and development chief, Mitsuhiko Yamashita, says the automaker's hybrid gets 40 percent better mileage than its nonhybrid counterpart. He wants to keep the price difference less than $5,000.
Nissan is also bucking the trend by making the 2010 offering a hybrid version of an existing model, instead of a hybrid-only car.
Honda and Toyota are both convinced of the image value in selling hybrids that have distinct "green car" looks, like the Prius. Both will unveil new hybrid-only models next year.
Abe acknowledged that customer acceptance is increasing for hybrids that look like hybrids but would only say Nissan is studying the idea.