NEW YORK – Shielded from major production disruptions because 70% of its vehicles sold in the U.S. are made in North America, Nissan will continue its surprising sales spurt for the rest of 2011, says Brian Carolin, senior vice president-sales and marketing.

“We entered April with 173,000 vehicles in dealer inventory, about 32,000 more than the same month last year,” he tells Ward's in an interview at the New York auto show. “We planned for a higher inventory of Nissan and Infiniti vehicles because we expected increased sales.”

That gives Nissan's brands a buffer against the temporary loss of production at its Japanese plants and six days of unplanned shutdowns in U.S. and Mexican facilities. The down days were pulled ahead from later in the year, so vehicle output will not be cut on an annual basis.

Nissan's first-quarter U.S. sales jumped a surprising 25.9%, according to Ward's data. The increase gave the auto maker an 8.4% market share.

Carolin says this was accomplished while actually lowering incentives below the industry average. But the quarter’s results also were helped by fleet sales that made up 20% of its volume.

“Higher fleet sales are typical for the first quarter because that's when our customers buy,” he says, predicting deliveries will fall back to the 10%-11% range by the end of the year, which is typical for Nissan.

“My commitment is to grow market share above 8% this year,” Carolin says. “I haven't changed my sales targets (despite the disasters in Japan).” He also sees a positive for Nissan in skyrocketing gasoline prices, as the brand has a large portfolio of fuel-efficient models that he expects to attract thrifty buyers.

However, Nissan's Infiniti brand will see a flat year, despite a rise in sales, up 17.5% in the first quarter. Carolin predicts the premium marque will maintain its small lead over Audi, as it did in 2010, but admits it will be a close race.

He also expects Infiniti sales to get a boost in 2012, when the new JX cross/utility vehicle debuts as a competitor to the Acura MDX.

Carolin also says Nissan will have delivered 900 Leaf electric vehicles by the end of April. All of the first 20,000 customers who reserved cars will receive their EVs by the end of the summer.

“On May 1, we will open Leaf reservations again, because we're confident of supplies,” he says.

“Our battery facility in Japan is operational, and the Leaf assembly plant in Opama is up and running.”

Leaf buyers, so far, have been positive about the EV. There have been no expressions of range anxiety, Carolin says, noting only of a couple of Leaf owners ran out of juice on the highway.

Owners have praised the EV's acceleration and quiet operation, he adds, and enjoy the convenience of charging the battery pack at home, instead of going to gasoline stations to fill up conventionally powered cars.

Regarding March light-vehicle sales, the Nissan Altima outsold the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, according to Ward’s data. But Carolin says the smaller Sentra is in a tougher segment, and driving toward the end of its model life has left it lagging behind the Toyota Corolla.

Still, he predicts the compact sedan will exceed last year's total sales of 94,000 units.

However, it's too early to evaluate sales of Nissan's new commercial vehicle, the NV van. The first retail deliveries occurred this month, and Carolin says he won't get a good read on the success of the vehicle until July.