LOS ANGELES - Toyota Motor Corp.'s rival to the BMW 3 series and Audi A4 appears to be coming to North America.
The rear-drive sports sedan, known as the Toyota Altezza in Japan and Lexus IS 200 in Europe, was shown to Lexus' U.S. dealers at a recent national dealer meeting in New York.
Although a Lexus official said no commitment has been made to bring the vehicle here, several dealers said last week they were told it is coming. Indeed, some dealers have been consulted by Toyota's Japanese engineering and product planning staffs to make sure content meets American needs.
'I've been told it will be sometime in the 2000 model year, but they also want to make sure it's perfect before it arrives. It's an absolutely incredible automobile, modified for this market,' said David Mullen, general manager of J.M. Lexus in Margate, Fla.
Added Dan Davidson, owner of Lexus of Riverside in Riverside, Calif.: 'Toyota wouldn't show us a car they aren't going to give to us. Judging from the dealers' reaction, I think Lexus realizes they need to roll up their sleeves and get to work.'
BIGGER ENGINE FOR U.S.
Among the obvious changes for the American market would be using a larger-displacement engine than the 2.0-liter powerplant used in Europe. One dealer said Lexus plans on sharing the GS 300's 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine with variable valve timing, a move that would speed the process of certifying the car for this market.
The European model comes equipped with a choice of a six-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission, as well as double-wishbone suspension, antilock brakes, traction control, front and side airbags and automatic climate control. The interior is a combination of futuristic and retro, with an instrument panel look similar to a chronograph watch.
Still being determined, however, is how the vehicle will fit in the Lexus pricing ladder. The ES 300 is entrenched in the $30,000 to $35,000 range, competing with the 3 series on price, and dealers speculate that the new car could fit in a similar price structure.
GLOBAL YOUTH STRATEGY
Peter Hennessy, president of Hennessy Lexus stores in Atlanta and Gwinnett, Ga., said the Altezza/IS 200 is part of Toyota's global strategy of aiming for younger buyers. He feels the new car and ES 300 could be priced the same without cannibalization.
Despite this deluge of evidence that the car is coming, Lexus still is playing coy.
'Nobody knows our customers as well as our dealers. We thought that giving them a sneak peek in New York would let us see if they would be interested,' said Lexus spokeswoman Nancy Hubbell.
Hubbell said production commitments for the car still are limited to the Japan and European markets.