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Car confidential: Hybrids to fuel Lexus growth

Zero to hero – that’s Toyota’s global plan for Lexus. On January 1, 2005, you couldn’t buy a Lexus officially in Japan; in August it simultaneously opened 143 dealerships there to the same immaculate standards, inspired by fine hotels and restaurants.

The worst case scenario is 60,000 domestic sales within five years; it could be as high as 100,000.

It’s a similar target Europe-wide, and the UK – currently the brand’s top market over here – expects to double its 10,000 or so volume by 2008. With Mercedes’ reputation for quality and reliability having fallen off a cliff, and BMW and Audi polarising opinions with their current designs, the Japanese have an opportunity they are desperate to seize.

The strategy isn’t rocket science: a decent supply of tasty and reliable new metal, supplied by attentive dealers. Lexus GB boss Steve Settle says a big expansion in today’s 50 territories isn’t necessary; some eight opportunities will be filled in by existing partners.

His focus is customer service. “Having 80% of satisfied customers might be okay for some, but we want to be in the high 90s,” says Settle.

As for the product, the petrol engined IS250 goes on sale this month , with the marque’s first diesel following in January. This 2.2-litre unit is expected to account for around 4000 extra sales alone in 2006.

But European dealers shouldn’t hold their breath for GS and LS diesels. There’s currently no six-cylinder diesel programme, due to minimal demand from the critical American and Japanese markets.

Instead, the focus is on hybrids – and the £50k GS450h, which lands in the UK in May, isn’t the ceiling of Lexus’s ambition.

The all-new V8 limousine, the LS, will also be offered in hybrid guise. This, the LS600h, will be the first V8 petrol/electric model, offering the punch of a V12, but with fuel consumption and emissions closer to those of a V6.

Torque has to be channelled to all four wheels to avoid wheelspin; the 0-62mph sprint will be dismissed in around 5.1sec.

Lexus previewed the four-wheel drivetrain in last month’s LF-Sh concept, which is the next LS aside from the chrome overdose, filled in grille, fancy lamp graphics and supersized wheels. Very much a product of Lexus’s tasetful new design direction, with a powerful stance and clean sheet metal, the new LS hits the UK in November 2006.

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