Toyota is likely to sell a hybrid version of its best-selling Camry from 2006, a Japanese newspaper reported on Friday, a move that would shift hybrids from their niche position in the car market into the mainstream.


According to Reuters, the Nihon Keizai business daily said that Toyota was aiming to sell 100,000 eco-friendly, petrol-electric Camrys a year, mainly in North America, where it already sells over 400,000 units of the model annually, making it that market’s most popular passenger car.


Toyota spokesman Shinya Matsumoto declined to comment to the news agency on the report, saying: “We do not talk about our product plans.”


But Reuters noted that such a plan would fit in with Toyota’s goal of producing 300,000 hybrids annually by the middle of the decade.


“It’s a natural, very feasible strategy. Toyota is already making hybrids on regular car assembly lines, so they would not have to build a special line,” Nikko Citigroup auto analyst Noriyuki Matsushima reportedly said.


Reuters noted that Toyota staked its claim as world leader in hybrid technology in December 1997 when it launched the Prius sedan, the first mass-produced vehicle to combine a battery-powered motor and a petrol engine. However, it would not be the first car company to market a hybrid version of a high-volume car – Honda – the only other car firm currently selling hybrids – markets a hybrid version of its Civic sedan and plans an Accord hybrid for the US market this autumn.


But Honda’s sales numbers are small and are expected to remain so for the time being, the report said.


Analysts told Reuters that Toyota would probably be able to reduce costs by 2006 and sell a hybrid Camry at a price attractive to consumers.


Toyota and Ford announced this week that the US carmaker would use some of its rival’s hybrid engine technology, underlining Toyota’s overwhelming lead in petrol-electric know-how, the news agency noted, adding that domestic rival Nissan Motor also has an agreement with Toyota to use its hybrid systems.


“The point here is that other auto makers are so far behind and that’s partly due to Toyota’s hold on hybrid patents,” Nikko‘s Matsushima reportedly said.


“US carmakers tend to dismiss hybrids as a toy,” Kurt Sanger, an auto analyst at ING, told Reuters, adding: “But in the immediate term they are losing the battle for public perception of who is the most innovative car company.”