Nestled in the rolling hills of middle Tennessee, Nissan Motor Mfg. Corp. is one of the few bright spots Tokyo-based Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. has left to brag about. Hammered by Asia's ongoing recession, deep in debt and short of attractive products, Japan's second-largest automaker is struggling to survive.

But in Tennessee NMMC excels, winning accolades for productivity and quality. If Nissan were the bumbling Detroit Lions, NMMC would be star running back Barry Sanders, who continues to set records for rushing even as his team falters.

For the fifth year in a row the Smyrna-based manufacturing plant has been rated the most productive in North America by the influential Harbour Report. What's more, most of the products it builds rank at or near the top in major independent quality studies, says Daniel Gaudette, vice president of manufacturing.

Even so, NMMC has had to "take one for the team," so to speak: Last May the plant began a four-day work week to trim bloated inventories at Nissan dealerships. Workers collected only 50% of their pay during their extra day off, but they were allowed to roll in vacation or personal days to make up the difference in lost wages.

It was bitter medicine for workers, but there were no job losses. In fact, NMMC has never had any layoffs. That no doubt helped the company defeat a major UAW organizing effort in 1997.

The work week reduction was aimed at trimming Nissan's original build plan of 375,000 units for 1998. Coupled with an early phase-out of 200SX Coupe production, NMMC will build only 300,000 vehicles in 1998, compared with 398,000 in 1997. Straight-time capacity is 450,000 units, making it one of the largest plants in North America.

Fortunately, Nissan headquarters recognizes Smyrna's value and is scheduling lots of new product for the plant, including all-new Maxima and Altima sedans, several versions of the Frontier pickup and two new sport/utility vehicles. If current planning holds, the plant could be bulging at the seams early in the next decade, producing as many as 510,000 vehicles annually.

NMMC officials downplay the potential 500,000-plus production, but they are optimistic about the future.

NMMC's Mr. Gaudette says the plant went back to a five-day work week early in October and now is gearing up to launch two new trucks. A 4-door crew cab version of Nissan's Frontier compact pickup will move into production in March and a Frontier-based SUV comes at the end of April.

Despite the two changeovers and the shift of 150,000 units of Sentra subcompact production to Mexico in mid-March, 1999 production should rise to about 320,000, Mr. Gaudette says.