Toyota claimed that it made automotive history in Canada on Friday, as its Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada (TMMC) plant in Ontario became the first outside Japan to manufacture Lexus-brand vehicles.

The first Canadian-built RX 330, the luxury sport utility vehicle (SUV) now in its second generation, rolled off a new dedicated Lexus line at the plant.

"This is a great day for all of us here in Cambridge," said TMMC president Ray Tanguay. "We have been working for more than three years to realise this dream."

Toyota invested $C650 million in upgrades and new construction for Lexus production in a separate manufacturing area at the plant, which includes a new paint shop using waterborne cartridge paint technology and a new welding shop.

The RX 330 is also manufactured at Toyota Motor Kyushu in Japan. Since 2000, Canadian and Japanese Lexus staff have travelled between the two plants to prepare for manufacturing at the high levels of quality the company sets for the division's products.

Hiroshi Kawakami, a managing officer of Toyota Motor Corporation, expressed his firm's confidence in its Canadian facility and its strong tradition of quality. "Our company's philosophy is to manufacture vehicles where they are sold," said Kawakami. "Since TMMC is one of the jewels in our crown overseas, beginning Lexus production here is certainly in keeping with that philosophy."

The Lexus brand was introduced to North America in 1990 with two sedan models. The RX 330 SUV, however, quickly became the best-selling Lexus when introduced five years ago.<>

TMMC has been manufacturing vehicles at Cambridge since November 1988 and investment has totalled $C3 billion since the company began. An extra 700 staff where recruited for the Lexus line, taking total employment to more than 3,900 people. Capacity has grown from 50,000 units annually in 1988 to 250,000 today at the plant which began building Corolla sedans and has also built the Camry Solara line developed for North American markets.

TMMC has received seven JD Power and Associates plant quality awards, including four gold, while local automotive journalists have three times voted the TMMC-built Corolla "Best Vehicle Built in Canada."