NISSAN'S North-East plant was yesterday confirmed as Britain's biggest car exporter for the fifth year in succession.

More than a fifth of all UK-made cars exported last year were made on Sunderland assembly lines.

Colin Dodge, managing director of the Wearside factory, said: "This is our 21st year here, and the continued success is testament to the skills and determination of our workforce and the support from our suppliers."

Figures compiled by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) showed that Sunderland exported 252,759 Micras, Almeras and Primeras - 44,500 units more than second placed Toyota.

Work is under way upgrading production facilities at the Sunderland plant, as it prepares to introduce three models in 16 months.

The Micra C+C cabriolet goes into production this autumn, the first mini-MPV based on the Tone concept will be built in January, and a compact 4x4 cross-over vehicle, based on the Qashqai concept car, will be produced from December 2006.

As well as being the top UK car exporter, the Sunderland plant has been the UK's biggest car producer for the past five years and the most productive car plant in Europe for seven years.

Later this year, the three-millionth car for export will leave the production line destined for one of the 45 countries where Sunderland-built vehicles are sold, including Australia, Mexico, Peru and Russia.

The workforce of 4,100 will reach another manufacturing milestone before the end of this year when they complete the four-millionth vehicle to be built at the factory.

Last year, the plant produced 319,652 vehicles - an average of about 90 cars an hour.