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Japanese newspaper reports Toyota likely to offer gasoline-electric hybrid versio of popular sedan for 2006 model year

Toyota Motor Corp is likely to sell a hybrid version of its best-selling Camry from 2006, a newspaper reported on Friday, a move that would shift hybrids from their niche position in the car market into the mainstream.

The Nihon Keizai business daily said that Toyota, the world's second largest car firm, was aiming to sell 100,000 eco-friendly, gasoline-electric Camrys a year, mainly in North America.

It sells over 400,000 Camrys annually in the United States, making it that market's most popular passenger car.

Toyota spokesman Shinya Matsumoto declined to comment on the report. "We do not talk about our product plans," he said.

But such a plan would fit in with Toyota's goal of producing 300,000 hybrids annually by the middle of the decade.

"It's a natural, very feasible strategy. Toyota is already making hybrids on regular car assembly lines, so they would not have to build a special line," said Noriyuki Matsushima, an auto analyst at Nikko Citigroup.

Toyota staked its claim as world leader in hybrid technology in December 1997 when it launched the Prius sedan, the first mass-produced vehicle to combine a battery-powered motor and a gasoline engine.

However, it would not be the first auto company to market a hybrid version of a high-volume car.

Honda Motor Co -- the only other car firm currently selling hybrids -- markets a hybrid version of its Civic sedan and plans an Accord hybrid in the U.S. market this autumn.

But Honda's sales numbers are small and are expected to remain so for the time being.

Analysts said that Toyota, Japan's largest auto maker, would probably be able to reduce costs by 2006 and sell a hybrid Camry at a price attractive to consumers.

Toyota and Ford Motor Co announced this week that the U.S. auto maker would would use some of its rival's hybrid engine technology, underlining Toyota's overwhelming lead in gasoline-electric know-how.

Domestic rival Nissan Motor Co also has an agreement with Toyota to use its hybrid systems.

"The point here is that other auto makers are so far behind and that's partly due to Toyota's hold on hybrid patents," said Nikko's Matsushima.

The auto giant plans to roll out at least two new gasoline-engine vehicles in the U.S. this year, including the world's first luxury hybrid, the RX400h sports utility vehicle. It is also considering a hybrid pick-up truck.

While Ford is planning a hybrid version of its Escape sports utility vehicle this year, U.S. auto makers have been much more reserved about the merits of gasoline-electric vehicles.

They have worked more aggressively to advance zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, which are widely believed to be at least 10 to 20 years away from being commercially viable.

"U.S. auto makers tend to dismiss hybrids as a toy," said Kurt Sanger, an auto analyst at ING.

"But in the immediate term they are losing the battle for public perception of who is the most innovative car company."
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