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Nissan Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. are gearing up for keener competition in the minivan market, auto industry officials said Tuesday.

Toyota on Wednesday was to take the wraps off the new Alphard, a day after Nissan released its restyled Elgrand.

The rivals are eager to win over the hearts and wallets of Japanese drivers with their new minivans, as the category enjoys growing popularity with families, and also carries higher profit margins than smaller vehicles, the officials said.

In the 2001 business year, which ended March 31, minivans grabbed four spots in the top-10 selling cars in Japan.

The new 3.5-liter Elgrand boasts a spacious interior, seating up to eight, as well as a host of IT gadgets.

Nissan President Carlos Ghosn, at a news conference to unveil the Elgrand, said minivans’ profit margins make them an important vehicle to ensure company growth.

The automaker has set a monthly sales target for the Elgrand of 3,300 units, about a third of the domestic market for luxury minivans, industry analysts said.

The Elgrand, a high-end minivan, was originally launched in 1997. The latest version is equipped with a TV-navigation system with 8-inch monitors for the front and rear seats.

The system is compatible with the Carwings telematics service, which gives drivers access to a variety of information services, e-mail, hands-free dialing and other functions by simply connecting a cellular phone to an onboard device, Nissan said.

Also available is a next-generation keyless system that allows users to lock and unlock the vehicle or start and stop the engine with a portable electronic device, it said.

Owners will be entitled to preferential tax treatment due to the car’s low exhaust gas emissions, the company said.

Nissan’s suggested retail price for the minivan ranges from 2.89 million yen to 4.5 million yen, depending on options.

Toyota’s Alphard is the successor to the Granvia minivan, whose current models come with either a 3.4-liter gasoline or 3-liter diesel engine.

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