Nissan still interested in U.S. partner

Carlos Ghosn, who heads the automakers Nissan of Japan and Renault of France, said Wednesday he remains interested in a partnership with a major U.S. automaker, although he is not in talks or aggressively looking just yet.

Nissan Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn told reporters the timing wasn't right to expand the Nissan-Renault alliance, formed in 1999, because Nissan Motor Co. is now in a lull of “consolidation” before going to the next stage of growth.

“The only partner that would make sense is somebody who is very big in North America,” he said at a hotel on the sidelines of the Tokyo Motor Show.

He did not mention by name any of the three biggest U.S. automakers — General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. or Chrysler LLC.

Speculation has been growing that Chrysler and Ford may be looking for partners as they struggle to restructure their operations and boost profits.

A year ago, talks between Ghosn and GM about a possible alliance ended without a deal. Proponents said the alliance would create significant savings, but critics said it could be a distraction from GM's efforts to return to profitability.

The talks ended after three months when GM sought payment from Renault SA and Nissan for what the U.S. carmaker said would have been a disproportionate share of the benefits of an alliance.

Other cross-continental auto alliances have failed, such as the one between Daimler AG of Germany and Chrysler of the U.S.

Ghosn noted he has made the collaboration between Nissan and Renault work to the benefit of both companies.

Nissan was on the verge of collapse before entering the alliance and has now turned around its business. Renault has also gained in status, size and engineering as an automaker by joining forces with Nissan.

The two companies save costs by using the same auto parts and sharing research.

“If you want to do more of this kind of value, you need a third partner,” Ghosn said. “I still consider the strategy is right. But if we move, we must move at the moment when confidence in Nissan and Renault in terms of growth and profit is very strong.”

Ghosn also said Nissan would introduce an inexpensive $3,000 car in India by 2010 with Renault and a local partner.

Indian automaker Tata Motors Ltd. has already announced plans to roll out such a car for its domestic market.

India offers low-cost manufacturing and suppliers, and the Indian auto market is expected to grow in coming years, especially if cars affordable to the middle class are offered.

Ghosn said the unanswered question was whether such cars can be exported to other markets, such as Europe, China, Brazil and the U.S.

Touching on a more futuristic topic, Ghosn said Nissan is targeting the commercial mass production of electric cars by 2012.

He said the future was in electric cars, especially for urban driving, and Nissan has made advances in lithium-ion batteries.

Lithium-ion batteries are more advanced and pack more power than the nickel-metal hydride batteries used in Toyota Motor Corp.'s Prius, the most widely sold gas-electric hybrid.

Ghosn has often played down hybrids as a niche product that doesn't make business sense.