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UK electric car profile shifts up a gear

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The profile of electric cars in Britain shifted up a gear on Thursday, with the start of production on the first all-electric car to be built in the UK: the Nissan Leaf.

Mass production of the 100 per cent electric Leaf, which began at Nissan’s Sunderland plant, is the culmination of four years of preparation and £420m of investment at the site.

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David Cameron, prime minister, visiting the plant, said the start of Leaf production was “the best possible rebuke” to those who said Britain could no longer design, make and export products.

“Yes, we have great financial services, yes, we have great creative industries, but we are also one of the top ten manufacturing countries in the world”, he said. “We produce great cars; we have recently been net exporters of cars, we are producing record numbers of cars. and we are about the cars of the future, producing new electric cars.”

Mr Cameron said he wanted a rebalanced UK economy less reliant on financial services and better spread across the country.

Britain’s car industry has shown incredible resilience, he said, growing during a difficult period. He noted that Nissan’s is the most efficient car plant in Europe and one of the most efficient in the world.

Asked if government departments might consider using the all-electric leaf, he said there were “conversations under way” on this.

Nissan, Japan’s second-largest automotive company, described the start of Leaf production in Sunderland as the “dawn of a bold new era”.

Until now, electric car take-up has been relatively low in the UK. According to figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), total UK registrations of grant-eligible plug-in vehicles in 2012 numbered 2,237 – of which 1,262 were pure electric – out of more than 2m registrations in total.

As a result, Leaf production has been focused on Japan and the US.

Nissan has sold 7,000 Leafs across Europe, out of a total global sale of more than 55,000. It could make 50,000 a year at Sunderland but will align output to sales. The Sunderland plant is also making advanced lithium-ion batteries.

The Sunderland plant has been in the vanguard of the recent upturn in fortunes of the UK’s automotive sector, in contrast to stalled or falling output in continental Europe. In 2012, the plant produced 510,572 vehicles, making it the first UK car factory ever to exceed 500,000 in one year. Its maximum annual capacity is 570,000.
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