DETROIT – Much of Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s remarkable turnaround has hinged on expressive and innovative styling, but the Japanese auto maker also will push the envelope when it comes to powertrain development for future vehicles.

Speaking at a North American International Auto Show press conference here, President and CEO Carlos Ghosn plays up Nissan's market leadership in continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) and says the Japanese auto maker is eager to introduce fuel-efficient diesel engines in the U.S. market.

“We will continue to enhance our trucks and SUVs with new features, new models, including diesels,” Ghosn says.

Afterward, he tells some journalists Nissan is studying which engines and technology to introduce, and he says the auto maker is assembling the necessary product-development teams. His timeframe, however, is less certain.

“We will be coming when we think the market will be mature for this, and it will probably come through the large SUV or large pickup segments,” Ghosn says.

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn

He says in a later interview that Nissan is agile enough to respond quickly when U.S. consumers begin demanding diesels.

“We will be ready on all the technologies, depending on where customers will be moving,” Ghosn says. “We won't be surprised.”

Hailing from Europe, where about half of new vehicles sell with fuel-sipping diesel powerplants, Ghosn is well acquainted with the torque-rich and fun-to-drive nature of the new generation of compression-ignition engines.

Alliance partner Renault SA of France has vast diesel experience, and Nissan currently uses Renault's 1.5L and 1.9L diesels in various products in Europe. (See related story: Renault Launches New Euro IV-Compliant Diesels)

Ghosn downplays the notion that Nissan customers in North America should expect these small displacement turbodiesels in compact cars in the near future.

Instead, speculation has been widespread the Nissan Titan fullsize pickup, built in Canton, MS, may offer a diesel option in the near future. (See related story: Shiga Looks to Keep Ball Rolling at Nissan)

Beyond diesel, Ghosn is proud of Nissan's dominance in the CVT market. The auto maker has three separate CVT designs in production, and more vehicle applications are coming, he says.

“CVTs give customers smooth, responsive performance and a cost-effective way to improve fuel economy,” Ghosn says. “For every 1 million CVTs in operation, we will deliver environmental benefits equal to 200,000 hybrids.”

By fiscal 2007, which ends March 31, 2008, Ghosn says Nissan plans to sell 1 million CVT-equipped vehicles worldwide.

In North America, all Nissan front-engine/front-wheel-drive vehicles (except the Quest and some Versa models) will come available with CVTs.

Plus, every Sentra, Maxima, Altima and Murano not equipped with a manual transmission will have a CVT, he says.

“We are confident that consumers will embrace CVTs as a widely available, affordable solution to high fuel costs and the demand for greater fuel efficiency,” Ghosn says.

Beginning in late 2005, Nissan began sourcing belt-driven CVTs in North America for the first time from Aguascalientes, Mexico, where transmission-expert affiliate Jatco Ltd. has a plant. (See related story: Nissan to Source CVTs in Mexico)

– with Christie Schweinsberg

tmurphy@primediabusiness.com

cschweinsburg@primediabusiness.com