Toyota Motor's new Ls600h sedan is displayed in Tokyo
Yuriko Nakao  /  Reuters
Toyota hopes the new LS600h hybrid sedan will help it take on BMW and Mercedes-Benz in the lucrative luxury car market.
updated 5/17/2007 3:26:44 PM ET 2007-05-17T19:26:44

For those who thought that only Hollywood celebrities and the granola-munching, Birkenstock-wearing crowd drive hybrid cars, Toyota has introduced one that costs as much as four years of tuition at a private college.

Enter the Lexus LS luxury sedan, the hybrid version, and at $124,000 its most expensive gasoline-electric vehicle yet.

Executives at Japan’s No. 1 automaker are fully convinced that hybrid cars are the way of the future. And they’re betting that growing consumer concern about the environment — and higher gas prices — will lure even wealthy buyers to the new model, which went on sale Thursday in Japan and will arrive later elsewhere.

Executive Vice President Masatami Takimoto denied hybrids were “a transitional technology” that will be replaced by more advanced ecological technology in the future.

“As long as cars exist, the need for hybrid technology will remain,” Takimoto said.

Toyota Motor Corp., which introduced its first hybrid, the Prius, 10 years ago, sold about 300,000 hybrids worldwide last year, and it plans to sell a million hybrids a year sometime after 2010.

Toyota’s President Katsuaki Watanabe
Koji Sasahara  /  AP
Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe smiles as he sits in the new Lexus LS600h.
Although all the world’s automakers are working on hybrids, Japan’s No. 1 automaker has dozens of patents on the technology and has sold more hybrids than any other automaker.

The most common hybrids today switch between a gas engine and electric motor to deliver better mileage and reduce emissions that cause global warming.

But Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe said the technology for hybrid systems can be applied to power other types of vehicles, which run on fuel other than gas, including biofuels and hydrogen.

“The hybrid system is a core technology that can be applied anywhere,” Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe told reporters.

Toyota, which has introduced two other hybrid Lexus models, said the hybrid LS went on sale in Japan Thursday.

Starting next month, it will roll out gradually in Europe, North America and Asia, including China, and other regions.

Toyota expects to sell 7,000 Lexus LS cars in 2007, including 4,000 in Japan. The company did not give other regional breakdowns.

The success of hybrids has been a big plus for Toyota’s image at a time when concerns about the global environment and soaring gas prices are growing. Watanabe said he hopes hybrid Lexus models will further enhance Toyota’s value.

Motor Trend lists the car as getting 20 miles per gallon in the city and 22 in highway conditions.

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