TOKYO — A senior research official at Fuji Heavy Industries says the company could begin marketing the Elten Custom, a concept hybrid car exhibited at last fall's Tokyo Motor Show, as early as 2001.

“We have made no decision yet,” says Kenzo Watanabe, a senior researcher at Fuji's technical center in western Tokyo, “but our rough timetable, all things considered, is 2001.”

Mr. Watanabe claims that if and when the model is introduced the company will need to sell at least 3,000 units per month, and preferably 5,000 units, to make launching the model worthwhile. The current plan is to sell it only in the Japanese market.

A concept hybrid, the Elten Custom incorporates a 658-cc, 4-cyl. gasoline engine with inverter, two electric motors, a nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery and a belt-type CVT. The engine is an Atkinson cycle-type.

The hybrid system is a combination series/parallel type, much like the Toyota Motor Corp. Prius system. In normal operations the gasoline engine serves as the vehicle's main power source.

Like the Prius system, the electric motor starts the engine. During acceleration, the drive motor, using energy supplied from the car's NiMH battery pack, assists the gasoline engine. Then at cruising speed, excess energy generated is converted into electricity for the batteries. During deceleration, the motor recovers and converts energy into electricity for storage in the batteries.

Fuji claims that the front-wheel-drive vehicle produces only half as much oxides of nitrogen (Nox) and hydrocarbons (HC) as specified by Japan's year 2000 emission regulations.

The nickel hydride battery, which is one-tenth the size of a standard EV battery, is supplied by Sanyo Electric Co, Ltd; the CVT is produced in-house by Fuji; the electrical system is supplied by Hitachi although Fuji completed the logic and system.