Nissan has begun building its Qashqai small SUV at its UK plant in Sunderland, north-east England.

The new model is a compact crossover combining a family hatchback with a 4x4 capability.

Around 130,000 will be produced in Sunderland, alongside the Note, Primera, Micra and Micra C+C, potentially increasing total annual volume to around 400,000 units by the end of 2007 - a plant record.

Production of the Almera hatchback and sedan ended recently.

The Qashqai's arrival rounds off one of Sunderland's busiest periods in its 20-year history with three new model launches within the last 16 months.

Nissan's vice president of UK manufacturing, Trevor Mann, said: "Qashqai will spearhead Nissan's drive for sustained, profitable growth in Europe.

"As such, the Sunderland workforce has been given a great deal of responsibility. But they have earned the right to build this car through their continued hard work and excellent track record in terms of productivity and reliability."

The Qashqai represents a total investment of EUR322.8 m and will secure more than 3,000 jobs at the plant and within the regional supply chain. It has also created 200 temporary and 100 trainee posts at the plant.

Around 80% of output will be exported, the majority for sale within Europe. The car will also be shipped to numerous overseas markets such as the Middle East, Australia, South Africa as well as Japan - making it only the second Sunderland-built model to be exported to the Japanese market. The first was the 1996 Primera.

The Qashqai is the first new model to be built down the plant's recently installed 'Nissan Integrated Manufacturing System'. This is a new, flexible line being adopted at the automaker's plants around the world.

Benefits over a conventional line include a shorter lead time, improved ergonomics, multi-model, random sequence production and increased integration with suppliers.

The new model will ramp up to full production volume in just four weeks, ensuring dealers across Europe are fully stocked ready for the car's start of sale date at the end of February 2007.

Customers will choose from three trim grades and four engine options. Two petrol units, a 1.6 and 2.0-litre, will be available in February, as will a 1.5 diesel. A new 2.0 diesel engine will be added from April.

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