PARIS -- Lexus has given in to the temptation to offer an entry-luxury vehicle in the $30,000 range.
Toyota's luxury brand had long resisted such a move. But with sporty hatchbacks such as the Audi A3, BMW 1 series and Volvo C30 luring young first-time luxury customers -- and with its own customer base aging quickly -- Lexus will launch the CT 200h in February.
The basics: Designers of this hybrid hatchback took the Prius' powertrain, changed its software coding to a sportier setting, slapped it on the HS 250h platform and wrapped the whole thing in some cool sheet metal.
Lexus' press materials admit that the car was developed with Europe in mind, with U.S. considerations an afterthought. Total output of the hybrid powertrain is a paltry 134 hp, including engine plus battery motors. By itself, the gasoline engine makes 98 hp.
Lexus says the nickel-metal hydride battery pack can be swapped out for lithium ion on future models when the technology is ready. There's even a spare vent in the right back-seat bolster, which would indicate future plug-in possibilities.
Notable features: To save weight, Lexus used more aluminum in the car's structure and body than in any previous Lexus model.
Lexus says handling is aided by a MacPherson front suspension and a rear trailing-arm, double-wishbone suspension. Lateral dampers -- picture a strut bar with a shock absorber built in -- keep hatchback area vibrations from affecting drive comfort.
A planetary gear set gives the feeling of "stepped" gears, even though the gearbox operates more like a continuously variable transmission. In EV mode, the car can drive up to one mile at up to 28 mph -- perfect for gridlocked downtowns.
Among the safety features are a pre-collision warning system and eight airbags, including front occupant knee airbags.
The climate control system uses an electric compressor, reducing strain on the engine. The center console's 8-inch screen uses a mouselike "remote touch" to control audio, climate, navigation and other systems. The console also will have a mount that can fit smart phones.
The CT 200h is built at Toyota's Kokura plant in Kyushu, Japan, the first factory devoted to hybrid-vehicle production.
What Lexus says: "This car will be the gateway to the Lexus brand and will be a real game-changer," Mark Templin, Lexus Division's general manager, said at the press launch here. "We know it won't win the 0-to-60 race, but it will create an engaging, dynamic experience."
Compromises and shortcomings: Even with hybrid assist, the 1.8-liter engine is thrashy and wheezy. No matter how much leather surrounds you, acceleration feels like a Prius rather than a sporty luxury car. The 0-to-60 time is just under 10 seconds. Also, while Europe gets a Mark Levinson stereo, the price-sensitive U.S. market will not offer it.
The market: The entry-luxury hatchback and wagon segment is small -- about 1,500 units monthly -- but is expected to grow. Templin hopes Lexus dealers can sell about 1,000 units of the CT 200h per month.
The skinny: The CT 200h looks sportier than the dowdy HS 250h, which shares its underpinnings. But because it uses the smaller Prius drivetrain, the CT 200h is actually slower. It may be hard to convince young buyers that this is a sporty car.