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Green transport: Rivals become friends in bid to save the planet

Nissan and Toyota have formed an unlikely partnership in the quest to build greener vehicles. Simon Harris looks at the latest moves and gets behind the wheel of Nissan's fuel-cell X-trail

THE motor industry has a reputation as one of the worst polluters on the planet.

The emissions its products send into the atmosphere are partly responsible for global warming, while the world's resources are plundered by heavy industry to produce materials needed for manufacture.

But the image of huge industrial monoliths belching poisonous gas into the global environment without a care is not a true reflection of many modern car manufacturers.

Saving the planet is a responsibility they seem to take more seriously than many of their customers, who would happily chug about in thirsty SUVs to their hearts' content.

Two rival Japanese manufacturers are viewing the task so earnestly that they have set aside their competitive instincts and are working in partnership to develop cleaner vehicles.

In September 2002, Nissan and Toyota signed an historic agreement for Nissan to build 100,000 hybrid vehicles in five years. The resulting prototype emerged this summer in the form of a Nissan Altima (an Audi A6-size saloon) using Toyota hybrid components.

The Altima is already part of Nissan's North American line-up, but as Europe's appetite for hybrid vehicles grows, it is feasible the Altima Hybrid could go on sale in the UK before the end of the decade.

The production Altima Hybrid, based on the prototype model unveiled in June, is scheduled to go on sale in the US in 2006, with Nissan pointing to the environmental advantages of hybrid vehicles, offering more power than combustion engines alone but with reduced emissions.

Fitted with a four-cylinder petrol engine and the Toyota hybrid trappings (transaxle, inverter, battery and control unit), the Altima promises the performance of a six-cylinder saloon with the fuel economy of a much smaller car.

Nissan says its agreement with Toyota is 'proceeding extremely well', allowing the prototype to be completed less than two years after their agreement was signed.

While Nissan's engineers work on their collaboration, chief executive Carlos Ghosn remains unconvinced about concentrating on hybrid technology at present, preferring to explore all of the fuel options available.

He said: 'We will expand into hybrids but the complexity is cost of the technology compared with the value for customers. The question is how we can raise the value and reduce the cost so it's a good business proposition. 'Hybrid systems seem to be more popular in 4x4 and top end cars which are not designed so much for fuel efficiency.

'I'm sceptical and waiting to see how far we can go. There will come a point in time where we have hybrids competing against diesels, and I think we will be in a strong position because of our diesel partnership with Renault and our hybrid partnership with Toyota. We have done enough to adapt to any technology that prevails.'

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