MADRID, Spain - Toyota Motor Corp. is using Spain to test whether a different approach for Lexus will help the brand become a player in Europe.
Lexus is struggling in Europe. The brand sold fewer than 20,000 vehicles in western Europe last year. But in Spain, where Lexus is sold separately from Toyota as it is in the United States, sales climbed 20 percent last year to 1,400 units.
Grupo Berge, Spain's largest importer, handled both Toyota and Lexus distribution until 2002. That year Toyota took control of its distribution but let the Spanish company continue to handle all Lexus imports.
Pedro Escudero, general director for Lexus Spain, says Toyota has separated the two marques to focus on managing the Lexus brand.
"We have developed an exclusive dealer network, with specific sales teams," Escudero says.
Escudero credits last year's sales increase to the introduction of the RX 300. The high-end SUV went on sale last June at all 23 of Spain's Lexus dealers, none of which shares a building with a Toyota dealership.
Escudero expects Lexus sales in Spain to hit 3,000 units in 2005, due largely to the introduction of hybrid technology on the Lexus SUV in January 2005 and the debut of a GS sedan, which was shown this month at the Detroit auto show.
Even reaching that goal, Lexus still will be far behind the luxury leaders in Spain. According to Precisa Urban Science Spain, which tracks new-vehicle sales here, Audi sold 41,526 units in Spain last year, BMW, 40,641 and Mercedes-Benz, 36,650.
Escudero says Lexus Spain plans to add seven dealers by 2006. Each is expected to invest at least $950,000 in the showroom, which must be at least 3,200 square feet.