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Automakers hedge bets as eco-car race gears up

While environmentally friendly vehicles will dominate the Tokyo Motor Show opening this week, the range of models on display shows automakers are still reluctant to focus all their energies on one technology.

Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. lead the global market for gas-electric hybrids, but they will also exhibit all-electric models.

Similarly, Nissan Motor Co, which is preparing for a global rollout of its Leaf electric car in 2010, will display a hybrid sedan as well.

Without a clear winner in the high-stakes eco-car battle, automakers are hedging their bets.

While hybrids such as the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight have secured an early lead, zero-emission electric vehicles are also starting to take off.

Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. started sales of electric cars this summer.

Many U.S. and European automakers are also accelerating development of fully electric models.

A key exhibit at Nissan's booth will be the Land Glider concept car, which demonstrates the company's commitment to electric vehicles.

The two-seater, designed for short-distance urban driving, is only 110 centimeters wide, 38 cm narrower than the standard 660-cc minicar.

The Land Glider can seat one occupant behind the driver. The vehicle's body and tire tilt from side to side like a motorcycle when it negotiates a curve.

But Nissan will also show a hybrid version of the Fuga large luxury sedan due out in autumn 2010. The company is also considering introducing small and midsize hybrid models as early as 2011.

Companies such as Nissan, Mitsubishi and Fuji Heavy have concentrated research and development resources on electric vehicles in part because they could not afford pursuing hybrids and other alternatives.

But a senior Nissan official said development costs have come down and allowed the company to rein in the prices of hybrid vehicles.

To consolidate their lead in the hybrid market, Toyota and Honda will showcase expanded lineups of gas-electric models.

The LF-Ch will be the first hybrid compact hatchback from Toyota's Lexus luxury line, while Honda's CR-Z hybrid sports car will hit showrooms in February.

Still, concept cars such as Toyota's FT-EVII and Honda's EV-N are reminders that the two companies are ready to compete in the electric car market.

Automakers are all bracing for tighter fuel economy regulations scheduled to be introduced in the United States in 2012.

Toyota plans to roll out electric vehicles in the U.S. market that year, and Honda is preparing to launch its offerings during the early 2010s.

Many companies are also working on plug-in hybrids, which can be charged from household wall sockets.

The technology is an answer to the electric vehicle's primary drawback--the limited distance it can cover on a single charge.

The plug-in hybrid, which is closer to an electric vehicle than a hybrid, runs on electric motors for a short distance and the engine-motor combination for a longer distance.

A Toyota official in charge of development said: "A plug-in hybrid, which takes advantage of the strengths of both hybrid and electric vehicles, is a realistic answer for a next-generation automobile."

Toyota will present the Prius plug-in hybrid, which will be available for lease at the end of this year in Japan, the United States and Europe.

Suzuki Motor Corp. will exhibit the Swift plug-in hybrid concept car.

Mitsubishi started sales of the i-MiEV electric minicar for corporate customers in July and will begin marketing them for individual customers next year.

The company's booth will feature a van version, the i-MiEV Cargo, and a concept sport-utility vehicle version, the PX-MiEV.

The PX-MiEV, a plug-in hybrid designed for long-range driving, will hit the market as early as 2013.

Fuji Heavy Industries, the maker of Subaru cars, started marketing the Plug-in Stella electric vehicle in July.

The company will use the show to unveil the Subaru Hybrid Tourer concept car, which it plans to bring to the market in the early 2010s.

Companies such as Mazda Motor Corp. and Daihatsu Motor Co. hope to show that conventional gasoline-powered cars can compete with hybrids in mileage.

Mazda's Kiyora compact car and Daihatsu's e:S minicar--both concept models--boast fuel efficiency matching that of a hybrid car.

The Kiyora can travel 32 kilometers on a liter of gasoline thanks to the newly developed Sky-G 1.3-liter direct injection engine, an idling stop system and regenerative braking.

Still, Mazda has said it plans to introduce both hybrid and electric vehicles by 2015.

While many automakers are pursuing a multi-pronged approach to environmentally friendly vehicles, they will be forced to choose one automotive technology, an analyst said.

"Automakers have limited management resources, and they must eventually focus their resources on one technology," said Atsushi Ishii, senior manager at the Japanese unit of U.S. auto industry researcher CSM Worldwide Inc

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