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Wed, Aug 31, 2005 - Page 12 News List

Toyota aims at luxury market with domestic launch of Lexus

AP , TOKYO

Marble flooring, orchids and bowing receptionists welcome customers at the Lexus car dealerships opening yesterday in Japan, marking the introduction of Toyota's luxury brand in its home market 16 years after the Lexus was introduced in the US, where it has become a big hit.

Sales staff received training much like they would get at a five-star hotel to cater to picky Japanese drivers -- a very different experience from what Americans get at US Lexus showrooms, according to Toyota Motor Corp.

New Lexus owners receive their purchase in a special "presentation room" with a wall-to-wall mirror that allows the proud drivers to admire themselves, and the dealer may give buyers a bouquet of flowers or golf balls for that personal touch.

"We want our customers to be moved by the whole experience," said general manager Yukihiro Fujimori, a former Toyota dealer who acknowledged that shifting from his past aggressive sales push took some adjusting.

Fujimori's showroom, one of more than 140 Lexus dealers opening nationwide, is in an upper-class Tokyo suburb, where imports such as BMW and Mercedes Benz are popular.

The challenge for Toyota is breaking into that luxury import market, which has stayed flat at about 270,000 cars a year, according to the Japan Automobile Importers Association.

Fujimori says the Lexus still lacks brand power in Japan.

"There are no quick fixes. It will take time, and it's not going to be easy," he said.

Japan, which used to shun flashy cars, is becoming more Americanized, and more Japanese are now familiar with Lexus' overseas reputation.

"This feels more like a cultural center than a car dealer. It looks like a museum," said 50-year-old Tetsuyuki Hirano, who runs an architectural design company and is thinking about buying a Lexus for his wife.

Toyota is targeting sales of 3,000 Lexus vehicles a month initially in Japan, but is hoping that will climb to 50,000 to 60,000 a year next year -- about 10 percent of the 500,000 worldwide Lexus sales.

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