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2011 Lexus CT200h

Finally, A Hybrid That Handles

     Like John Cleese in a Monty Python production, when it comes to the Lexus CT200h we feel like announcing “and now for something completely different”. That’s because this new entry-level Lexus offers the same hybrid benefits that we’ve seen in one form or another for the past decade, but doesn’t sacrifice driving pleasure on the altar of ultimate frugality. And no, we’re not counting the poor-excuse-for-a-hybrid Honda CR-Z and its piddling mid-30s fuel economy rating. Yes, we too were skeptical when phrases like “fun to drive hybrid” and “a hybrid with attitude” were being dropped by sales executives at the vehicle’s press introduction. But after a day spent driving around Palm Beach, Florida, we found ourselves uttering similar summaries of Lexus’s fifth hybrid. And we didn’t see that coming.
     You will, however, see the CT200h coming thanks to what we will politely describe as a few daring design choices. The most unique of which is certainly the bulky C-pillar accented with a teeny tiny window that does nothing to alleviate the resulting blind spot. The new hybrid’s face fits into the Lexus lineup naturally and looks inspired by the IS sport sedan to us—no bad thing. The rear view is standard hatch, but the brake lights use clear lenses and look a bit boy racer for something wearing the L badge. We feel the back doors are a tad truncated, but with an overall length of just 170.1 inches we have to remember this car plays in the compact premium segment.
     Lexus figures the segment players include the BMW 1-Series, Volvo C30 and Audi A3, which currently combine to move 1,500 units a month. That’s undoubtedly a small number but automakers know the value of drawing new customers to their cheapest offerings since happy customers will usually remain loyal to a brand as their needs change and incomes grow. Sales executives hope that 75% of the 1,000 units they expect to sell each month will go to conquest customers from outside the Lexus family. These new customers may start in the $30,000 CT but Lexus will be happy to sell them a six-digit LS600h someday.
     But until that day they will be driving a Lexus with the heart of Toyota’s venerable Prius. That means the same 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle I4 that combines with the 650 volt electric motor to produce 134 total horsepower. The biggest upgrade is the latest generation battery is now smaller and fits unobtrusively under the rear load floor. A Best Buy’s worth of electronics sort out the most efficient use of power and send it through a continuously variable transmission to the front wheels. Of course 134 hp isn’t much but the CVT is really to blame for the typically sluggish hybrid acceleration rate. Push the pedal to the floor and you get a lot of noise that lasts for 9.8 seconds before 60 mph is finally achieved. You won’t be winning any street races in this hybrid.
     What surprised us was how competently this hybrid handles. Lexus uses a MacPherson strut front suspension and a double wishbone rear suspension that is tuned far tauter than any hybrid we’ve driven. The result is flat cornering and a ride quality that is more coarse than most Lexus models but never actually harsh. One neat piece of innovative hardware is the front and rear lateral performance damper system which brings the strut tower brace into the modern era. Instead of just a solid bar reducing chassis flex between the strut towers, Lexus has included a very specifically tuned damper to nullify the transmission of unwanted frequencies before they enter the cabin as the dreaded noise, vibration and harshness that Lexus has earned its reputation on eradicating. We expect to see similar designs rapidly spread through the industry.
     A central knob offers easy access to three drive modes. A left twist puts the system in Eco mode and the gauges are bathed in blue while the hybrid power indicator appears to the left of the speedometer. Pushing the knob strikes a fair balance between power and economy and is appropriately called Normal mode. If you’re like us you’ll spend more time then you probably should twisting the knob to the right and summoning Sport mode. The gauges take on a more serious red accent and the hybrid power indicator becomes a tachometer—a rarity in hybrids. Sport mode changes the throttle mapping for more direct response and significantly alters the electric power steering for more weight, but even in normal mode the steering is praiseworthy with a quick ratio and no on-center deadzone. But like most electric systems, feedback remains an opportunity. A fourth electric-only drive mode can be utilized in appropriate around-town situations by pressing the EV Mode button next to the drive selector, but the system will automatically fire the engine if anything more than modest acceleration is required. Brakes were among the best we’ve experienced in a hybrid with none of the odd non-linear regenerative braking tendencies of earlier hybrids and a firm pedal.
     A Lexus cabin is usually above reproach, but the CT200h struggles to impress in a few areas. The dash is no design breakthrough but leather trim on the gauge hood and center console move things appropriately upscale. We spent most of our time in a CT without the optional navigation system and the outdated radio display on the standard sound system would be unacceptable in a 2002 Kia; how it made it into the latest Lexus is beyond us. It does provide for fun in-car trivia as you and your passengers try to guess the song title and artist based on the first few letters the screen is limited to displaying. Leather seating is optional but the standard NuLuxe material is pretty nice by fake leather standards. It’s also 50% lighter than the real stuff. A moonroof is standard equipment and we’re glad to report headroom is not an issue for six-footers. The glovebox and center console storage are small, but our bigger gripe with the console design is that the padded lid which acts as the center armrest does not extend far enough forward for short drivers. If you’re in the five-foot crowd your elbow is going to rest on the hard plastic left of the sunken cupholders. That’s a fairly major ergonomic blunder in our opinion and one with uncomfortable consequences. The design team did fit great seats with aggressive back bolsters and the 2nd row bench easily folds flat. We would like a fold down center armrest for rear seat passengers though. Our favorite part of the interior is easily the beautiful 3-spoke steering wheel with its thick rim and contrasting stitching. You’d have to be in a BMW M-product to find a sportier wheel.
     The CT200h is an exclusive new model that will serve as the brand’s entry-point when it goes on sale in the U.S. March 1st. The EPA has blessed the CT with ratings of 43 mpg city and 40 mpg highway. Lexus gave the industry its first luxury hybrid in 2005 and has more than 250,000 hybrid sales to its name making it far and away the leader of the market segment it created. We’ll just have to see if consumers embrace the slightly awkward looking, still slow Lexus 5-door that handles like no hybrid before.

The Good:
Great seats and steering wheel, the most affordable Lexus, the best handling hybrid yet.
The Bad:
Uncomfortable center armrest design, some awkward design angles, too much tire noise on coarse pavement, outdated radio display.
The Verdict:
A hybrid that can reward its driver with more than just impressive fuel economy.

Photos Courtesy of Lexus

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