Toyota Would Consider Tie with Ford if Asked: Paper

Toyota Motor is open to a broader partnership with Ford Motor if the struggling U.S. auto maker asks, the Nikkei business daily reported on Wednesday, citing an interview with its president.

Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe told the paper that if the two auto makers formed a tie-up, it would likely focus on an alliance in technological development, but he said no talks had
taken place yet.

Toyota spokeswoman Shiori Hashimoto said Toyota executives always meet with heads of other auto makers when opportunities occur and consider tie-ups if they are proposed, although it did not necessarily mean they would form an alliance.

The Japanese auto maker said in December the chairman of the company, Fujio Cho, met with Ford chief executive Alan Mulally but they did not discuss the possibility of forming any alliance.

The comment was made after the Nikkei paper reported the two heads met as the first step in potential partnership negotiations.

Ford currently licenses part of Toyota's market-leading hybrid engine technology for the gasoline-electric versions of its Escape and Mariner sport utility vehicles.

Analysts have said Ford , which has relied heavily on its line-up of trucks and SUVs, would stand to gain from a cooperative partnership with Toyota if it focused on fuel economy and other technology seen as environmentally friendly.

Toyota is poised to overtake General Motors as the world's largest auto maker in terms of production in 2007, and many analysts expect it will also unseat Ford as No. 2 in the U.S. market as well.

Watanabe also told the paper Toyota plans to sell in Japan small, low-priced cars which it is designing for emerging markets, as demand for minivehicles is growing rapidly.