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Nissan Motor Co. aims to sell 50,000 Altima hybrids

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TOKYO - Nissan Motor Co. aims to sell 50,000 Altima hybrids a year in the United States, starting next year with U.S. production of the car.

"That's the number we're looking at," says Tadao Takahashi, Nissan's executive vice president in charge of global manufacturing. "We'd like to catch up" with other automakers.

A hybrid car uses an electric motor and an internal combustion engine. Nissan buys hybrid technology from Toyota Motor Corp. It will export core hybrid components, such as the battery pack, from Japan.

Nissan will build the Altima hybrid either in Smyrna, Tenn., or Canton, Miss. The company will compare each plant's quality and engineering before making a choice, Takahashi said.

The Smyrna plant has an edge in experience: It builds the Frontier pickup, Pathfinder and Xterra SUVs, and Maxima and Altima sedans. Last year the plant built 487,406 units, below its production capacity of 550,000.

The Canton plant is just 2 years old and was plagued last year by problems. It built 267,354 units last year, below its capacity of 400,000 units.

Nissan needs to sell at least 50,000 hybrid Altimas a year to help it meet U.S. standards for corporate average fuel economy, says Takaki Nakanishi, analyst at UBS Warburg (Japan) Ltd.

In the fast-growing U.S. hybrid market, Toyota is far ahead of Honda and Nissan.

Toyota has waiting lists for the Prius, Highlander and RX 400h hybrids. Next year it will start producing 4,000 Camry hybrids a month in Kentucky.

Nissan and Honda Motor Co. will wage a lively battle for second place. This year Honda expects hybrid sales to top 45,000.

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