The launch Toyota‘s of redesigned [and larger] Tundra pickup truck puts the Japanese  vehicle maker squarely into the last segment of the US market where it hasn’t been competing as strongly, a top executive said at the motor Detroit show.

Jim Lentz, executive vice president of Toyota’s US division, told The Associated Press in an interview that the company is looking at the Tundra launch almost as starting a new franchise within the Toyota brand.

“While our loyalty rates are fairly good, we were losing customers to other manufacturers because we didn’t have the capability that they needed,” Lentz told the news agency, adding: “They wanted something to pull their boat, pull their horses, do whatever they needed to do.”

At Detroit, Toyota is showing the Tundra CrewMax full-size pickup truck, which will arrive in showrooms in March, following the regular-cab and double-cab on sale in February, AP said.

Its competition in the hard-fought pickup truck segment includes General Motors’ new Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra models and the Ford F-series line. According to The Associated Press, both domestic makers have said they will continue to fight to hold their shares of the truck market.

Lentz told the news agency that Toyota – about to celebrate a half-century of sales in the US – has an average of 15% of the market in other segments, but its full-size truck share is about 5.5%.

“This is really the last segment that we really don’t compete in,” Lentz reportedly said.

He told AP that US light vehicle sales for 2007 likely will be flat or slightly lower after dropping to about 16.5m in 2006 from just under 17m in 2005 but expected some growth in sales to retail customers.

After selling about 2.5m vehicles in the US in 2006, Lentz reportedly expects Toyota to boost 2007 volume by around 140,000 unit to nearly 2.7m, helped by the new Tundra, and the Prius and Camry hybrids.