DETROIT – Lexus promises the hybrid-powered version of its RX 330 cross/utility vehicle and the ’06 GS sports sedan, both unveiled at the Detroit auto show Tuesday, will take the brand in a new direction.

Whether the brand needs a new direction is up for debate: Toyota Motor Corp.’s luxury division earned the title of top luxury brand in 2003 for the fourth-straight year with annual sales of 259,755 units – an 11% increase over last year’s all-time high. The year’s success largely is due to strong sales of its RX 330.

Lexus plans to renew the GS for ’06.

The RX 330’s leadership position in the luxury utility-vehicle market is expected to aid in this year’s launch of its gas-electric hybrid-powertrain version, the Lexus RX 400h.(See related story: Toyota Unveils Highlander Hybrid Amid Award Celebration)

The RX 400h, which when it bows this fall will be the world’s first luxury hybrid, is powered by a revamped version of Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system that also powers the Toyota Prius.

The RX 400h’s system, the same as that in the Toyota Highlander Hybrid unveiled here Sunday, boasts double the battery power of the Prius and an electric motor that operates at 12,000 rpm – double the speed of the Prius.

This combination makes for 270 hp, a 20% increase over the RX 330, and an improved 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) speed, with even more significant gains in the 30-50 mph (48-80 km/h) acceleration range.

Coupled with the power increase comes a combined fuel efficiency “significantly better” than the Environmental Protection Agency’s average for a compact sedan; a 600-mile (966-km) tank range; and a super ultra- low emissions vehicle, says Denny Clements, Lexus group vice president and general manager.

It also will be the first Lexus to feature the company’s vehicle dynamic management (VDM) system. VDM combines vehicle stability control with an electronic braking system for management that Clements calls less intrusive yet more effective than standard vehicle stability control. The feature will come standard on the RX 400h.

The hybrid CUV is mildly restyled from the standard-powertrain-equipped version. The only difference in the interior is the absence of a tachometer.

The ’06 GS displays a new, more sculptured design direction for Lexus – something Clements says will migrate across the brand. The redesigned, third-generation GS is decidedly sportier: The wheelbase is 2-in. (5 cm) longer, but the sedan is only a half-inch (1.3 cm) longer overall.

The new GS will be available with a choice of a 4.3L V-8 or an all-new 245-hp 3L V-6 engine, which replaces the previous 3L inline 6-cyl. engine.

The V-6 version will come with fulltime all-wheel drive – a first for Lexus and something for which the brand has been begging its Japanese parent for years. Both engine variants will be mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission with manual mode. Other features include the VDM system and an adaptive, variable suspension.

kzachary@primediabusiness.com