A car that can park itself without the driver having to touch the steering wheel, said by maker Toyota to be a world first, went on sale in Japan on Monday, Reuters reported.

The new hybrid petrol-electric Prius sedan uses electrically operated power steering and sensors that help guide the car when reversing into parking spaces, the report said.

Reuters said Toyota president Fujio Cho sat in the driver’s seat at a demonstration laid on for the press, surprising reporters by holding his hands up as the car quickly parked itself.

“I forgot to put on the brake,” Cho reportedly said, adding: “But it’s easy.”

According to Reuters, Toyota said it expects to sell 76,000 new Prius worldwide in 2004, counting on growing demand for environment-friendly cars.

The sales target is more than double the annual figure for the Prius for the past two years of around 28,000 units – Toyota has sold about 120,000 of the cars since its launch in December 1997, Reuters said.

“Development of eco-friendly cars is a key to our future growth strategy,” Cho said, according to Reuters, adding that Toyota aims to sell 36,000 units at home, 35,000-36,000 in the United States and 4,000-5,000 in the rest of the world next year.

The news agency said the new model sells for 2.15 million yen (£11,700; $US18,430) in Japan, against 2.18 million yen previously and the intelligent park assist system is offered as an option, at an additional cost of 230,000 yen which includes a DVD navigation system.

Toyota has set itself a goal of producing 300,000 of the eco-friendly hybrid vehicles a year by 2005 or 2006, Reuters noted.