Toyota plays it down, but the new image of its Lexus luxury brand has a strong European influence. Sources in Italy confirm the Lexus LF-A coupe is one of several Lexus concept cars designed by Italian freelance designer Leonardo Fioravanti and built in Turin.

Fioravanti is tight-lipped about his relationship with Lexus, Automotive News Europe reported.

"Like any freelance designer, by contract I cannot comment on a specific project," he said at the Detroit motor show, where the car debuted. "But I cannot deny I've been working for the Toyota Motor group in recent years."

The many hugs and celebrative photos taken in Detroit of Fioravanti and the LF-A concept by warm and friendly Lexus top executives said more than public statements.

Lexus says LF means "L[exus]-Finesse," but LF also stands for Fioravanti's initials. Something Toyota says is purely a coincidence.

Moreover, the car displays the clean lines and pure functional styling that are Fioravanti's trademarks.

"Over the last two years, a new styling philosophy has taken shape at Lexus design," said Wahei Hirai, Toyota global managing officer of design.

"What has emerged from this two-year journey was not just a new direction in philosophy. It is a new design language, based on the dynamism and inherent contrast between simplicity and function."

Lexus needs a boost in Europe, where it has been overshadowed by European-based luxury brands. Lexus is the top high-end marque in the US with 287,927 sales last year, but sold only 20,154 cars in western Europe.

By comparison, western Europe's top luxury brand, Mercedes-Benz, sold more than 646,000 units in 2004.

Fioravanti has been associated with Toyota since the seventh-generation Celica coupe was introduced in 1999.

That car closely resembled the F100 concept car he penned in 1998. But he always denied involvement in the Celica project.