Japanese car-makers Nissan and Toyota are to focus their electric car manufacturing in the UK, which is aiming to become Europe’s electric car production capital.

Toyota has confirmed plans to build its first European hybrid petrol-electric version of its Auris hatchback in Burnaston, Derbyshire, from the middle of next year. And Nissan is to build a lithium-ion battery plant for electric vehicles close to its existing car plant in Sunderland. Indian car giant Tata Motors is also considering making electric cars in the UK.

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Nissan is the UK’s largest car-maker by production volume. Its car plant in Sunderland employs 4200 staff and is the region’s largest single-site employer. The company’s $330m battery plant investment will create a further 350 jobs in Sunderland, in one of the most significant crossborder automotive investments since the economic downturn began.

The new plant will be the firm’s main site for battery production in Europe. The UK government is providing loans and grants to the company in the hope that Nissan will decide to build electric cars in Sunderland in the future, but the carmaker said it had made no decision yet. UK prime minister Gordon Brown said that Sunderland “could now be a strong contender” for electric car production and the government would “continue to work with Nissan to ensure this happens”.

The UK government has announced plans to make Sunderland a new “low-carbon economic area”, comprising a training centre, technology park and test track for low-carbon vehicles.

UK business secretary Lord Peter Mandelson said: “The collaboration between local businesses, universities and colleges will create a hub of expertise to boost innovation and accelerate business growth in this important area of green industry.”

The government will also establish an R&D centre in the UK’s north-east for five local universities, covering all aspects of low-­carbon technology, with projects including the understanding of power consumption and charging patterns, the range extension of all-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, and energy storage.

Nissan has said ­it will unveil an electric car in October destined for sale in the US and Japan from next year and globally from 2012. Renault, its alliance partner, is launching electric vehicles from 2011.