Nissan Raises The Hybrid SUV Ante

2017 Nissan Rogue - Photo courtesy of Nissan North America
2017 Nissan Rogue – Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

Is there a worse time to build an all new hybrid?

Nissan laid the Altima Hybrid to rest in 2011. Despite higher fuel prices than today the Altima Hybrid did not sell well. Nissan, under Carlos Ghosn, has always been able to craft deals with other automotive companies and Nissan’s first hybrid came from Nissan leveraging Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive. Now Nissan is back with a completely new, in-house designed hybrid system. Nissan has made some unique technical choices to make their system stand-out in a much more crowded hybrid market than the one Nissan left in 2011.

Nissan chose the newly revised 2017 Nissan Rogue as the chariot for this new system. This new system creates another interpretation of how to mix electric motors and gasoline engine power.

Toyota has the best-selling and best known system, which uses a mechanical continuously variable transmissions running through two electric motors that are meshed with the gasoline engine to generate any road speed that is desired by the driver. Nissan simply wants to do something different.

Nissan is extremely well known for its Xtronic CVT. It wouldn't be right for Nissan to not make it a part of this hybrid drive system. The big question is how do you mesh the electric motor and the gasoline engine while retaining the Xtronic transmission.

That gasoline engine will be a new 2.0 liter engine with 141 horsepower and 144 pound-feet of torque. There is no information available on where it is port or direct injection, and whether it uses an Atkinson or Otto cycle. Nissan's new system for blending chemical and electric power will be called Intelligent Dual Clutch Control.

Intelligent Dual Clutch Control replaces the torque converter with a 30 kW electric motor and two dry clutches. One clutch mates the electric motor to the gasoline engine and the other mates the gasoline engine to the Xtronic transmission. Using clutches allows the electric motor to spin up to any speed before being engaged at the same rotational speed as the gasoline engine. All of this is combined for 176 horsepower.

Driving experience has become an extremely important component of the modern hybrid. Nothing made the need for more clear than the fact that first generation Chevrolet Volt owner's feedback made General Motors put in great effort to make the second generation Volt a better driver's car. The use of clutches by Nissan may be an attempt to give a more direct and mechanical driving experience to the Nissan interpretation of a hybrid. This choice may have also come from Hyundai Motors using traditional automatics and dual clutch transmissions in their hybrid models.

Fuel economy is the true defining factor for a hybrid. According to Nissan's estimates they expect 33 mpg city and 35 mpg highway for the front-wheel-drive model and 31 mpg city and 33 mpg highway for all-wheel-drive models. Compare this to the current fuel economy figures of 25 mpg city and 32 mpg highway for the all-wheel-drive version with the standard gasoline engine. There is no information on pricing currently, but with the current low fuel prices it might be difficult to say why a customer should spend the extra money for six or seven more mpg in the city.

Technology and connectivity are extremely important to the hybrid equation and NissanConnect is Nissan's proprietary infotainment system and is the centerpiece of the new Rogue's technology suite. Nissan has not confirmed the technology features for the hybrid, but press photos show that the hybrid will feature the larger 7-inch touch screen. Nissan, much to their chagrin, have had difficulties with NissanConnect. Consumers have found NissanConnect more difficult to use than other proprietary systems like FCA’s UConnect and Toyota’s Entune. Consumers are looking for cutting edge tech in their hybrid and there is no room for technological flops.

Value is a serious question for a hybrid CUV. This is especially true with the 2017 Kia Niro right around the corner. Korean automakers have been tenacious about keeping costs down while moving their quality upmarket. These are two CUVs that will definitely need to be driven back to back. Nissan may have the edge offering an AWD model, but the hybrid CUV is a new animal in the automotive jungle and it will be exciting to see if Nissan made the right decision.

Gas prices are not what they were in 2011 when Nissan killed the Altima. The current national average for regular gasoline is $2.18, which makes the argument for choosing a hybrid a difficult one for most consumers. Nissan has had amazing success with their Xtronic transmissions because of its real world fuel economy. Nissan hasn't had to invest in more exotic engine technology like direct injection and turbocharging for competitive fuel economy numbers. Nissan may be competing with themselves on their own dealership lots because of the excellent fuel economy of their non-hybrid models.

EPA regulators recently released their Midterm Evaluation for Light-duty Vehicle Greenhouse Gas Emissions. According to the commission, the 2022-2025 standards can be met with the pace of improvements for gasoline engines alone. According to their draft technical assessment report there will need to be a market penetration of less than 3 percent to meet GHG emissions regulations for 2025 and 14 percent to meet CAFE regulations for 2025. With numbers like this it would be interesting to see what sort of market penetration Nissan is expecting for the Rogue Hybrid.

Nissan is taking a chance on hybrid technology and with their excellent transmission technology they might have one of the most fuel efficient CUVs on the market for 2017. Nissan doesn't like to take risks, but it is difficult to not see an advanced hybrid in a market awash with low fuel prices as anything but risky.

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