Affordable hybrids are Japan's answer to record oil prices

Japanese car manufacturers aim to counter the twin challenges of climate change and spiralling oil prices with a range of affordable hybrid cars which run on both petrol and electricity, dpa reported.

Although Toyota has sold over 1 million of its groundbreaking Prius hybrid, the car remains a high-tech niche model: Now Japan's second-largest maker Honda, plans to market an entry-level hybrid model of its own with the roll-out planned for next year.

Engineers are agreed that petrol-electrics are a stopgap until more sophisticated technology comes on stream. In the long term, manufacturers want to offer cars propelled entirely by electricity or on board fuel-cells but the hybrid does have its place in the scheme of things.

Hybrid automotive engineering is currently the "most practical and efficient" technology available to reduce potentially climate-damaging carbon dioxide emissions, said Honda boss Tajeo Fukei, announcing a compact, five-door hybrid-powered car capable of carrying five people in comfort.

The lightweight Honda car is scheduled to go on sale in Europe, North America and Japan from early 2009.

Work will continue meanwhile on ultra-clean systems such as fuel cells which use hydrogen to produce electricity with only water vapour as a by-product although development costs are huge and the refuelling infrastructure does not yet exist.

Hybrids have so far been expensive to buy and even in Japan the Toyota Prius has sold only in small numbers. Honda aims to slash production costs to be able to mass produce its new green petrol-electrics and offer them at a competitive price. The Honda hybrid is likely to cost around 200,000 yen (1,900 dollars) more than a comparable petrol-only model.

Fukui said it was important for the company to "enter a new phase" leading to the more widespread sale of hybrids which he considers a cornerstone of Honda's new sales strategy.

Honda plans a range of hybrids from a sports car based on the CR-Z concept down to a Civic hybrid saloon and a hybrid version of the Fit minicar sold in some European markets as the Jazz. Honda hopes to achieve annual sales of 500,000 petrol-electrics up until 2020.

If other manufacturers embrace the hybrid in the same way it could mark a breakthrough for petrol-electrics. Toyota has already said that it plans to boost hybrid sales to 1 million annually over the next decade and Renault's partner Nissan - number three in the Japanese automotive firmament - has also announced ambitious plans to press forward with hybrid technology.

Unlike market leader Toyota and Honda, Nissan has not yet launched a hybrid in its home market and its executives are looking farther ahead to all all-electric era.

"Nissan firmly believes the ultimate solution for sustainable mobility lies in zero-emission vehicles," said Nissan executive Vice-President Carlos Tavares. The company announced recently that it will soon begin the production of advanced lithium-ion batteries for electric cars.

Nissan is joining forces with electronic giant NEC for the project which involves investment of 12 billion Yen (116 million dollars) over three years in new production facilities in Zama in Tokyo`s neighbouring province of Kanagawa. Lithium-ion batteries are viewed as the most promising solution for future electric cars.

Experts expect Nissan to initially fit the batteries into a compact commercial vehicle for the Japanese market only before using them in electric cars in the United States and Japan from 2010 onwards. Nissan plans to market its hybrids globally from 2012.

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