First Drive: 2011 Lexus CT200h

There is much about the Lexus CT200h that doesn't make immediate sense.

For example, why would Toyota choose to introduce this new car to the media in Paris, when the majority of its luxury brand's sales occur in the United States? And why would all of the CT's exterior dimensions measure within a cabernet franc grape of the Audi A3 -- a car that is, by conventional measures, a sales flop in big-car-obsessed America?

We Americans sometimes forget that the world doesn't revolve around our country -- and you can bet your freedom fries that the CT wasn't designed for the U.S. market. Some other clues to support this conclusion: an unapologetically wagonlike shape; a simple, driver-focused interior; a very stiff suspension; and stellar fuel economy. In fact, the CT's spec sheet is only a diesel engine and a clutch pedal short of passing for a European hatch.

In an automotive landscape often localized to American tastes (Bonjour, le nouveau Volkswagen Jetta), it's refreshing to be able to choose unabashedly European-focused cars on our home soil. Audi might not hawk as many A3s as it does A4s, but we would bet that their buyers -- who can happily squeeze their cars into teeny parking slots in Europeanesque American cities like San Francisco and Boston -- love them just as much.

So will this Euro-focused car work in America? Perhaps, but if you start to see ads touting the CT's sportiness, kindly turn your back in protest: this is no Volkswagen GTI. The CT uses the Prius's powertrain -- which means a low-revving, 1.8-liter Atkinson cycle four-cylinder mated to a couple of electric motor/generators and a planetary gearset. No paddle shifters are available, there's no way to turn off the electronic stability control, and with 134 total system horsepower, the 3130-pound CT200h rather impassionately drones its way to 60 mph in 9.8 seconds.

The corollary is pretty great fuel economy: Lexus expects that the CT will achieve 42 mpg on the combined EPA cycle, which is 24 percent better than the next-best fuel miser in the segment, the A3 TDI (not to mention 20 percent better than Lexus's other sub- $40,000 hybrid, the HS250h sedan). Audi's diesel may not have much more horsepower (140), but it's almost a second quicker to 60 mph and has a paddleshifted six-speed dual-clutch automatic that eliminates the dreaded CVT-induced on-ramp moo.

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This is a Lexus? Man, does it look downmarket in the pictures. The cut-lines around the front end and hood (bonnet) look as if they're walking through the bank naked. The interior looks like it fell asleep watching television. It's lovely to have a serious chassis in a hybrid, and the suspension sounds huge...which once again begs the question I've been asking for years: Why does the Prius have to drive like a turd?

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