Toyota Motor Corp unveiled the production model of its Lexus IS F sports car on Thursday as it aims to close the gap with global luxury car heavyweights Mercedes-Benz and BMW AG.

The IS F is the first in a new series of muscle cars planned under the Lexus line christened F, created to broaden the brand.

Lexus has long been renowned as a luxury, high-quality brand, said Executive Vice President Akio Toyoda, responsible for Toyota's domestic operations.

But to be recognized as a true global premium brand, we knew we needed more emotional vehicles, Toyoda, grandson of company founder Kiichiro Toyoda, said at the car's unveiling at Fuji Speedway, the automaker's racing circuit near Mount Fuji.

Eager to show off the car's new five-liter, 423-horsepower V8 engine and eight-speed automatic transmission -- the world's first to allow manual-style gear changes -- Toyota invited reporters to test-ride the IS F.

Professional drivers whirled their passengers around the Fuji Speedway circuit, venue of the Formula 1 Japan Grand Prix last weekend, at speeds up to 240 kph (150 mph).

Lexus is the top-selling luxury brand in the United States, but it occupies a niche in Europe, where competition is fiercest. The 18-year-old brand debuted in Japan in August 2005, and Toyoda said it would take at least a decade for it to gain the kind of status that Mercedes and BMW enjoy in Japan.

Toyota's sales in Japan have been on a downtrend along with the rest of the market, where many consumers have shifted to 660cc mini-vehicles. Excluding that segment, dominated by Suzuki Motor Corp and Daihatsu Motor Co, Japan's car market shrank 9.5 percent in September, the 27th successive month of decline from a year earlier.

Toyota's sales fell 4.2 percent, although the smaller drop meant its domestic market share grew to 45.8 percent for the year to date.

Toyoda said that rather than racking up sales volume, the IS F, a prototype of which debuted at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January, was aimed at luring Japanese consumers back to the car market.

Toyota said it aimed to sell 7,000 of the cars globally in 2008, mostly in the United States. The IS F will first hit showrooms in Japan on December 25, with a price tag of 7.66 million yen ($65,700), followed by a launch overseas from the first quarter of 2008.

The F designation was first conceived about 20 years ago with a project internally coded Circle-F -- the F standing for flagship.

That gave birth to the Lexus brand in 1989, but the project then evolved into the high-octane line beyond Lexus's normal engineering and development process, Toyota said.