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Nissan eyes US market

DETROIT, Jan 12 – Nissan hopes to take advantage of a weakened Detroit to grow its share of the US market with a host of new products including a high-profile electric car, the Japanese automaker\’s top US executive told AFP.

"2010 is going to be for us a very strong year in terms of product," Carlos Tavares, executive vice president in charge of the Americas, said in an interview Monday.

"We are going to bring eight new products to this market in the next 12 months."

Nissan managed to expand its share of the US market by 0.2 points to 7.4 percent in 2009 even as the overall industry suffered a 20-percent drop amid a broad economic crisis.

That came on the back of a 0.6-point rise in 2008 and helped Nissan end the year in sixth position, just 1.5 points behind Chrysler.

Tavares said 2010 will continue to be a challenging year, but forecast overall US sales will rise to between 11.5 to 12 million vehicles from 10.4 in 2009.

"We still expect and hope to grow our market share steadily," he said, adding that Nissan has no intention of buying market share with deep discounts.

"That would not be healthy…. We want to do things right and protect our brand."

The troubles at General Motors and Chrysler — which restructured under bankruptcy protection after seeking billions in emergency government loans — have created additional opportunities for expansion.

Both automakers have sharply cut back their dealerships and vehicle offerings and GM is in the midst of eliminating the Saturn, Pontiac and Saab brands.

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While some of those brands\’ buyers will naturally migrate to another GM product, "some of those customers are orphans and that creates opportunities," Tavares said on the sidelines of the Detroit auto show.

"It offers an opportunity for everybody. That\’s a fact," he said.

Nissan will reach out with direct marketing to those orphaned customers and help its dealers take advantage of the void left after a neighboring competitor shut its doors.

"It\’s impossible to predict what the future will be because it\’s the net balance of competing moves," he cautioned.

Tavares forecast that gasoline prices will rise as the economy picks up and that consumers will continue to favor more fuel-efficient vehicles.

"We are in good shape because we continue to reinforce our passenger car offerings, especially the price points between 10 and 30,000 dollars," he said.

The all-electric Leaf, set to reach a limited number of showrooms later this year and to be sold on the mass market in 2012, will initially contribute largely by raising the automaker\’s profile.

"We are not rushing for a very steep ramp up," Tavares said.

The first vehicles will be imported from Nissan\’s plant in Japan but in 2012 they will begin to be manufactured in the United States at a plant which has an annual capacity of 50,000 battery packs.

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While most of the early adopters will likely purchase the Leaf out of a desire to be environmentally conscious, Tavares said there could be a significant market among people looking for an economical commuter car.

"As a second or third car it\’s going to be extremely convenient," Tavares said.

Tavares said the compact four-seater Leaf, which has a maximum range of about 100 miles (160 kilometers) per charge, is also the harbinger of the future of the automobile. Hybrid competitors, he insisted, are merely a stepping stone.

"We believe zero emissions is the ultimate goal," he said.

"Will it happen in the next three years or five years? I don\’t know. But I think it\’s a safe statement to say consumers will not consider a non-zero-emission vehicle in the future."

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