Toyota will launch Lexus in China, the company reportedly announced on Tuesday, saying the country had the potential to be the largest luxury car market in the world.

According to Reuters, Toyota, the world’s third-biggest car maker, said it would start a Chinese Lexus distribution network by setting up six dealerships in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities by the end of 2004 and that number would rise to 14 by the middle of next year.

“We believe China has the potential to be the top luxury car market in the world,” Toyota senior managing director Akio Toyoda reportedly said in a statement.

Toyota gave no sales projections, Reuters said, noting that Lexus will line up against an array of established rival luxury players in China, including Volkswagen’s Audi arm, BMW and General Motors’ Buick division. Lexus reportedly is the best-selling luxury car in the United States, with 2003 sales rising 11% to 260,000 vehicles.

The news agency said the Lexus move into China comes less than a month after Toyota said it would start selling the high-end cars in Japan next year, with an annual sales target of 50,000 to 60,000 cars.

In 2003, Toyota secured about a 5% slice of China’s car market, which saw total sales double to two million units, Reuters said.

In China, Toyota plans to turn out more than 150,000 cars this year, and between 300,000 and 400,000 vehicles, including compacts, luxury sedans and sports utility vehicles, by 2010, the report added.