Nissan to sell hybrid Altima in Only 8 U.S. States

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Nissan Motor Co., the last of Japan’s biggest carmakers to sell a hybrid vehicle in the U.S., will offer its gasoline-electric Altima model only in the northeastern U.S. and California.

The 2007 model will be available early next year in California, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island, Maine and New Jersey, Nissan said in a statement. Sales are being limited to states that have adopted versions of California’s so-called zero-emissions vehicle mandate, which requires the largest automakers to offer hybrids, spokesman Kurt Von Zumwalt said.

"We have capacity to make up to 50,000 hybrids, which is more than we expect to sell in those states,’’ said Von Zumwalt, who is based at Nissan’s North American unit in Gardena, California. "If there’s more demand, we’ll have capacity to do more.’’

Nissan, Japan’s second-largest automaker, follows Japanese rivals Honda Motor Co. and Toyota Toyota Motor Corp. in selling hybrids in the U.S. Honda has sold the fuel-saving cars since 1999, and Toyota brought the Prius to the U.S. in 2000.

Carlos Ghosn, Tokyo-based Nissan’s chief executive officer, has said the fuel savings of gasoline-electric autos, which cost at least $3,000 more than equivalent gasoline-engine only models, aren’t compelling enough for most consumers.

Hybrids conserve fuel and reduce tailpipe emissions by combining a gasoline engine with an electric motor powered by battery packs and brakes that capture energy from stopping.

Honda, Toyota and Ford Motor Co. offer hybrids nationwide. General Motors Corp., the world’s largest automaker, is adding a gas-electric version of its Saturn Vue sport-utility vehicle this year.

Hybrid sales in the U.S. more than doubled last year to a record 207,021, led by the Prius and Honda’s Civic. Sales have been rising at a slower pace this year, with declines for Honda’s Accord Hybrid and Ford’s hybrid Escape and Mariner SUVs.

Nissan’s decision to limit sales to a few states may reflect the cooling in demand for hybrids, said Wes Brown, an analyst at Iceology, a consumer research company in Los Angeles.

"This lets them launch it with much more modest goals and if it exceeds the goals, you can easily increase it,’’ Brown said. "Unless the vehicle screams `I’m driving a hybrid,’ like Prius, it’s become a tougher proposition.’’

California Agreement

California, which has authority to set auto-pollution rules that exceed federal standards, in 2003 reached an agreement with the six biggest automakers in the U.S. requiring them to sell hybrids in the state.

Nissan didn’t provide horsepower, fuel-economy or pricing data for the Altima Hybrid, which will have a 2.5-liter, four- cylinder engine and continuously variable transmission. Nissan is using a hybrid system supplied by Toyota, Japan’s largest automaker and the world’s biggest seller of gas-electric autos.

Ghosn’s decision to sell hybrids in only eight U.S. states follows his statement during an April 12 interview in New York that it wasn’t feasible to offer such vehicles in only parts of the U.S.

"I think when you offer a product, you have to offer it globally,’’ he said in that interview.

Nissan’s U.S. shares rose 37 cents to $24.30 in Nasdaq Stock Market composite trading at 5:20 p.m. in New York. They have gained 19 percent this year.

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