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Lexus GS450h

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TOKYO (AP) _ Toyota's latest luxury car is powered by the world's first commercially mass produced hybrid system that's especially designed for rear-wheel drive vehicles.

The Japanese automaker said Thursday the Lexus GS450h, powered by an electric motor and gasoline engine, will go on sale in North America and Japan in April and in Europe in May.

Toyota Motor Corp., which leads the world in the new market for energy-efficient hybrid cars, is targeting global sales of 5,700 vehicles this year _ 2,000 vehicles in North America, another 2,000 in Europe, 1,500 in Japan and 200 elsewhere.

Toyota initially developed its hybrid system for the front-wheel drive Prius compact car, and some design changes were needed to adapt it for the Lexus GS450h.

This latest hybrid debunks the image that ecological vehicles can't zip around powerfully like sportscars, company officials said.

The new Lexus has a 3.5-litre engine but delivers the driving sensation of a 4.5 liter engine on a standard vehicle as well as the mileage of an equivalent model with a two-litre engine, they said.

``The Lexus brand must pursue the essence of luxury, and that includes cutting-edge technology,'' president Katsuaki Watanabe said at a Tokyo showroom. ``It's a good opportunity to highlight the technological strength of the hybrid.''

Adding to the glamour is an advanced safety feature, billed by Toyota as another world first, that not only uses sensors to detect cars ahead but also uses a camera on the steering wheel to judge whether the driver is facing the front or not. If the driver is looking away, the emergency brakes kick in faster in a potential crash situation.

The Lexus is a well-known Toyota nameplate around the world, but Toyota introduced Lexus dealers in Japan only last year. Lexus sales in Japan have struggled at about 10,100 over four months last year, falling short of the company target to sell 20,000 vehicles during that period.

Japanese luxury buyers have generally preferred European brands like BMWs and Mercedes.

Watanabe said the numbers weren't too bad and acknowledged it takes time to develop a reputation for a brand like the Lexus. Toyota is targeting sales of 40,000 Lexus vehicles in Japan this year, but has sold about 3,300 Lexus cars in the first two months.

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