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Toyota model made in Indiana getting sleek overhaul

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Toyota Motor Corp. is revamping the Highlander sport-utility vehicle, turning the car-based crossover into a more wagon-like model as the automaker seeks to keep its U.S. sales rising for a third consecutive year.

The new Highlander will be built solely at its Princeton plant in southwestern Indiana.

The third-generation Highlander, unveiled Wednesday at the New York International Auto Show, is lower, longer and wider than the model it replaces early next year, the company said. The three-row vehicle will be able to carry as many as eight people and comes with a four- or six-cylinder gasoline engine or a V-6 hybrid, Toyota said.

The redesign gives the 2014 Highlander a “sleek and strong appearance.” A new six-speed transmission aids performance and fuel efficiency, the Toyota City, Japan-based company said. Interior enhancements include stitched seats and a soft-touch dashboard.

Toyota, the world’s largest automaker, expects U.S. auto demand to reach 15.3 million cars and light trucks this year, about 5.5 percent more than in 2012. While the company plans to lead car sales for a 12th consecutive year with its Camry sedan, the current Highlander trails competing mid-size car-based crossovers, including Ford Motor Co.’s Explorer and Edge models, and General Motors Co.’s Equinox.

The company didn’t immediately provide pricing and volume goals for the new Highlander. Sales of the current model this year through February were up 21 percent, to 18,141.

By comparison, Ford boosted Explorer sales 60 percent, to 32,598, and Edge sales rose 2.4 percent, to 19,297, according to Autodata Corp. Equinox deliveries grew 20 percent through February, to 37,872.

The new Highlander design is less conservative than past versions, said Alec Gutierrez, senior industry analyst for Kelley Blue Book. Even so, “the new redesign should help them to maintain their spot in the segment, but not enough to increase market share,” he said.

Separately, Jim Lentz, head of Toyota’s U.S. sales unit in Torrance, Calif., said the company expects sales of Prius hybrid models to reach “about a quarter million” units this year. Reaching at least 250,000 in the U.S. would be a record for the world’s best-selling hybrid line, and 5.6 percent more than 2012.

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