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Written by: Staff

TOKYO, Mar 16 (Reuters) Toyota Motor Corp. began selling the first hybrid sedan under its high-end Lexus marque in Japan on Thursday, saying the domestic launch would be followed by a roll-out overseas starting next month.

Japan's top auto maker has been expanding its gasoline-electric hybrid powertrain through its product lineup as it drives towards its goal of selling 1 million units of the fuel-sipping vehicles annually some time around 2010.

The GS450h, powered by the world's first hybrid system specifically designed for cars with rear-wheel-drive, twins a 3.5-litre V6 gasoline engine with an electric motor to provide power comparable to a 4.5-litre vehicle, but with the fuel economy of a 2-litre engine, or around 14.2 km/litre (33 miles per gallon), Toyota said.

Toyota wants to sell 1,800 GS hybrids a year in Japan, and 5,700 units globally in 2006. It also plans to launch a hybrid version of the LS sedan, Lexus's flagship model, after the new gasoline version debuts this fall.

The GS450h is the second hybrid offering for the Lexus brand, after the RX400h sport utility vehicle.

Toyota, the world leader in hybrid sales and technology, sold 234,950 hybrid vehicles globally in 2005, up from 134,690 the year before.

The world's second-biggest auto maker has said it aims to halve the cost -- and price -- of the hybrid system to steer the niche powertrain into the mainstream and eventually offer the option across its entire vehicle lineup.

Customers still pay a premium of thousands of dollars for hybrid cars, with the GS450h starting at 6.8 million yen ($57,950), compared with 5.2 million yen ($44,310) for a gasoline-only 3.5-litre version and 6.3 million yen ($53,690) for the 4.3-litre GS.

($1=117.34 Yen) REUTERS SD SSC1445

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