PARIS – Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. says it could make a decision within the next 18 months on whether to build a vehicle manufacturing plant in Russia.

The auto maker has seen its sales in the former communist country rise more than 200% within the past year, which is forcing it to look at new ventures to support growth there.

“At the end of last year we sold 9,000 cars, and this year we (will sell) nearly 30,000 cars (in Russia),” Mario Canavesi, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Nissan Europe, tells Ward’s during an interview at the motor show here. “We could go to 40,000 (units) next year.

“Obviously, if we want to go more than 40,000 or 50,000 cars, we have to find a way also to go into local production, which we are obviously studying.”

Maxima sells well in Russia.

Canavesi says Nissan will have to make a decision within the next 18 months on whether to build a plant in Russia and which products would be assigned to the plant.

The hottest Nissan vehicle in Russia is the Maxima, with “almost all” of the Maximas sold in Europe destined for the Russian market, he says.

The likely candidate for Russia production would be a C-segment vehicle, along the lines of the Almera, Sentra or “something like that, or even a bit smaller,” Canavesi adds.

Surprisingly, Russians seem to be clamoring for luxury vehicles, including Nissan’s Infiniti brand. Canavesi admits a number of Infiniti vehicles have found their way to Russia via unauthorized importers, but that’s about to change as the Infiniti brand officially will debut there next year.

“Russia will be the first country in Europe to introduce Infiniti,” he says. “We have already a lot of dealers interested in having this franchise.”

In terms of Western Europe, Canavesi says he expects the market to post a marginal increase in sales of 1.5% this year, with 2005 expected to continue on the same path. He also expects incentive pressure to rise in Europe next year.