More MBS CoverageTRAVERSE CITY, MI – Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.’s top powertrain manufacturing official confirms here the auto maker will source continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) for the first time in North America beginning later this year.

Yoshimasa Yamamoto, general manager and vice president-Powertrain Production Engineering Div., says Jatco Ltd., Nissan’s transmission-expert affiliate, will make belt-driven CVTs in Aguascalientes, Mexico, to supply Nissan’s nearby vehicle assembly plant.

Yamamoto is mum regarding proposed production volumes, but reports last year pegged production at approximately 300,000 units.

Yamamoto says the CVTs will be shipped to both North America and Europe. And although he will confirm only that the CVT is slated to be installed in a front-engine, front-wheel-drive vehicle, it is likely the CVT will be available for the next-generation Sentra slated to launch next fall and to be built at Aguascalientes.

North American-made CVTs could end up in next-generation Sentra compact.

Nissan remains steadfast in its promotion of CVT technology and, through Jatco, is the leading manufacturer of the efficiency-enhancing transmissions.

Last year, Jatco forecast demand in Japan, alone, would increase to 2 million to 3 million units by fiscal 2007, from just 600,000 in fiscal 2002. (See related story: CVT Output Climbing in Japan, Mexico )

But other auto makers have been more circumspect in backing CVTs, once one of the most promising transmission technologies to increase efficiency.

General Motors Corp., for one, last year ended its CVT development programs, saying new 6-speed automatic transmissions promise similar efficiency gains and can handle engines with markedly higher torque output.

Ford Motor Co. earlier this year pulled the trigger on a high-volume CVT program, but the venture has endured a troubled gestation. (See related story: GM to Drop CVT, Ford Program on Track)

The design of belt-driven CVTs limits their ability to transmit high torque outputs. Nissan’s current design can handle a maximum of about 258 lb.-ft. (350 Nm) of torque, although Yamamoto says here Nissan believes it can hike the torque capacity slightly in the future to perhaps 266 lb.-ft. (360 Nm).

Another positive point for CVTs: They play prominently in current-production hybrid-electric vehicles (HEVs). Continuously variable transmissions work well with the small internal combustion engines typically used for HEVs; hybrids from Toyota Motor Corp. and Ford all use CVTs.

Yamamoto also forecasts a powertrain production increase of about 600,000 units in the 2007-2009 period, mirroring a corresponding Nissan global vehicle production expansion by 2008.

He says it has not yet been determined in which global regions powertrain manufacturing capacity will be expanded.

Although Nissan has eliminated or reduced many powertrain production bottlenecks in the worldwide Nissan Integrated Manufacturing System, the company continues to seek ways to increase the efficiency and flexibility of NIMS, Yamamoto says.

Nissan hopes to increase the use of powertrain component modules that will speed manufacturing throughput and further enhance quality gains, he says.

The toughest area from which to wring improvements is in engine forgings such as crankshafts, because of Nissan’s demanding internal quality processes and standards, Yamamoto says.

Nissan and partner Renault SA continue to hammer out areas of responsibility in powertrain product development, he adds.

Nissan continues to ponder a large-displacement diesel engine for its U.S. light trucks and a potential future medium-duty pickup, and that the two companies are examining the possibility of Renault, with extensive diesel-engine experience, designing that engine, he says.

“We are looking into that possibility,” Yamamoto says.

bvisnic@primediabusiness.com