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Toyota Motor Corp. is gauging potential interest in a niche model designed for urban, craft- oriented businesses with a small utility-van concept vehicle

Toyota Motor Corp. is gauging potential interest in a niche model designed for urban, craft- oriented businesses with a small utility-van concept vehicle.

The small "U-squared" vehicle, designed at the company's Calty studio in Newport Beach, California, was shown at a conference hosted by Make: magazine in San Francisco yesterday and will make a public debut in New York later this month, Toyota said in a statement. The vehicle has a flexible interior for hauling cargo and a retractable utility bar that can be used to support a desk or grocery-bag hooks.

Should the Toyota City, Japan-based company bring the van to market, it would compete with small utility models including Ford Motor Co.'s Transit Connect and Nissan Motor Co.'s NV200 van. Auto makers routinely show concept vehicles to assess public reaction and interest before deciding whether to produce and sell them.

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"Calty keeps a number of projects concealed while exploring ideas and products," Kevin Hunter, president of Toyota's U.S. design studio, said in the statement, without elaborating.

The U-squared comes as Toyota, the world's largest car maker, seeks to spruce up its image with livelier vehicle designs. In January it showed the FT-1 coupe, a sculpted, front- engine, rear-wheel-drive concept sports car at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. While it hasn't confirmed production plans, the company continues to show variations of the coupe.

Toyota rose 0.4 per cent to 6,149 yen as of 10:08 a.m. in Tokyo trading while Japan's benchmark Topix index was little changed. The shares have declined 4.2 per cent this year.

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