Nissan Motor Co <7201.T> lost $2.4 billion in the fourth quarter amid a global slump in car sales, and forecast more losses this year as it looks to conserve cash by putting product launches and growth plans on hold.

Japan's No.3 automaker needs to offer new cars to compete with rivals Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> and Honda Motor Co <7267.T>, but a sharp sales slide and big losses have forced it to delay manufacturing projects and new models.

Carlos Ghosn, chief executive of both Nissan and France's Renault SA , said there were signs of improved access to credit and a gradual return in consumer confidence, but this year would be another tough one.

Ending (fiscal) 2008 with better-than-expected results is good, but the absolute numbers show we still have significant challenges before us, Ghosn told a news conference, adding the main objective was to return to positive free cash flow and an operating profit.

Ghosn, reporting his first full-year loss since taking over as Nissan CEO almost 8 years ago, later told Reuters he would not quit until the carmaker was back making profits comfortably.

If you leave now, you wouldn't be leaving -- you would be deserting, he said in an interview.

Ghosn predicted Nissan would return to profit in 2010/11 if external conditions stayed the same, and stressed Nissan/Renault was focused on making its partnership better rather than seeking opportunities in a U.S. sector battered by an economic slowdown that has pushed Chrysler into bankruptcy.

Nissan's January-March operating loss of 230.4 billion yen ($2.4 billion) compared with a year-ago profit of 212 billion yen, but was not as bad as the 270 billion yen loss analysts had predicted.

The maker of the Altima sedan and Murano SUV made a net loss of 276.9 billion yen in its fourth quarter, swinging from a year-earlier profit of 138 billion yen.

For the year to next March, Nissan sees an operating loss of 100 billion yen, less than a consensus forecast for a 239 billion yen loss. It expects a full-year net loss of 170 billion yen.

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Nissan suffers from not having any brand big-hitters to match Toyota's Camry or Honda's Accord. Its Qashqai crossover has been a rare hit in Europe, but the GT-R sports car has done little to attract buyers to its mass-volume products.

Lagging its bigger domestic rivals in hybrid technology, Nissan aims to beef up its light commercial vehicle (LCV) business, where it will soon launch the NV200 van, and premium Infiniti line to pick up the slack.

Further out, it hopes to overtake competitors by leading the still-unproven electric car segment with a mass rollout in 2012. It hopes to unveil its new electric car in early August.

Toyota, the world's leading carmaker, on Friday forecast a bigger-than-expected $8.6 billion annual loss and said it would sell about 1 million fewer vehicles this year, leaving it, too, desperately trying to cut costs.

Takahiko Murai, general manager of equities at Nozomi Securities, said Nissan appeared less downbeat than its rival.

My first impression is that Nissan's outlook seemed rather (more) optimistic than that of Toyota, which provided a very conservative outlook. It seems like Nissan's forecasts are based on an assumption of global economic recovery this year ... but I doubt that.

Nissan's sales in the United States are down 35 percent so far this year, mirroring a drop in the overall market, while it is among the worst performers in Japan without the 660cc minivehicles it buys from Suzuki Motor Corp <7269.T> and Mitsubishi Motors Corp <7211.T>.

Ghosn said emerging markets such as China and Brazil would be profit pillars not only for Nissan, but for the whole autos industry, over the next 2-3 years.

Suzuki on Monday reported a small fourth-quarter profit, helped by growth in India, but forecast an 87 percent drop in profit for the current year.

Earlier on Tuesday, Mazda Motor Corp <7261.T> forecast its full-year operating loss would nearly double to 50 billion yen this year, in line with analysts' forecasts.

Nissan shares, which fell steeply throughout last year, have risen 61 percent so far this year against a 40 percent gain on Tokyo's transport sub-index <.ITEQP.T>. Ahead of the results on Tuesday, the stock ended down 1 percent.

(Additional reporting by Mariko Katsumura)

(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)