The new, compact CT 200h from Toyota’s upscale Lexus division shares its hybrid gas/electric powertrain with Toyota’s Prius. But the Prius feels like an appliance, while the CT 200h feels and drives like a luxury car.
The 2011 front-drive, four-door CT 200h is the first Lexus hatchback and thus is more practical than the Prius. Also, compared to the Prius, the new Lexus has an ultra-rigid chassis, better suspension and a body that, while somewhat chunky, looks rather sporty, partly because of a rakish roofline and short body overhangs. However, a low front end (for aerodynamic efficiency) could be damaged in certain parking areas.
The CT 200h was mainly designed for Europe’s narrow streets and tight parking spots, which means it should be at home in cities like Boston and San Francisco.
Lexus aims the CT 200h at a younger crowd “moving up into the luxury segment for the first time.” The automaker says it’s a new group of buyers who wants a car with an upscale nameplate but an efficient design that doesn’t cost a bundle. Lexus feels the market for small luxury cars will grow.
But I can’t agree with Lexus that up to 60 percent of CT 200h buyers will be males, because women are generally more practical when it comes to cars and the handy size of the CT 200h should appeal to many of them.
Lexus says CT 200h rivals include the Audi A3, BMW 1-Series and Volvo C30. However, the new Lexus is the only hybrid among those vehicles and has luxury-class-leading fuel economy.
Asking price for the CT 200h will be, as Lexus put it, “in the low 30s.” Figure on approximately $32,500 without options.
Standard features include a power driver’s seat and keyless engine start/stop. Extras include leather upholstery, navigation system, dynamic radar cruise control to help prevent collisions and upscale audio systems. There’s also an optional rearview monitor, which is needed because a small rear window limits driver vision through it—although outside mirrors are large.
Safety items include eight air bags (including driver and front-passenger knee bags), anti-lock brakes, traction control and vehicle stability control
Don’t figure on finding your local Lexus dealer flooded with CT 200hs because the automaker says it will only import about 10,000 to America next year. Europe will get a larger number.
The CT 200h officially goes on sale March 1, but I drove it in late November at a media preview in Delray Beach near Florida’s posh Palm Beach.
Estimated fuel economy is 43 mpg in the city and 40 on highways. Only 87 octane fuel is needed for the car’s sophisticated 1.8-liter gas engine.
What makes this thing go? Power comes from the gas engine, which works in tandem with a powerful electric motor to generate a total system output of 134 horsepower. There’s also a also a generator, high-performance battery, power control unit and power split device that uses a planetary gear set to combine and re-allocate power from the engine, electric motor and generator, according to operational requirements.
Drive to the wheels is provided by the full hybrid system’s shift-by-wire electronically controlled continuously variable transmission. However, the smooth, responsive transmission is controlled by a small shifter that can be rather awkward to use. No paddle shifters are offered.
The CT 200h delivers lively in-town acceleration, decent freeway merging and 65-75 mph passing ability on highways. It’s no hot rod. At 3,130 pounds, its 0-60 mph time is only a respectable 9.8 seconds. Lexus officials said at the preview that the car’s designer wanted an overall fun driving experience, “not a 0-60” car.
However, the CT 200h has various driving modes selected by a console-mounted drive mode select switch. With EV, the car automatically operates under electric motor power alone at speeds of less than 28 mph for about a mile. The Normal mode is fine for most driving, while the ECO allows maximum economy.
In Sport mode, the throttle is remapped for better response, electric power steering is recalibrated for less assistance and drive voltage shoots from 500 to 650 volts.While backlit in “hybrid blue” for the EV, ECO and Normal drive modes, the instrument panel illumination, drive mode select switch and a spotlight in the center cluster automatically alter to red. Simultaneously, the hybrid power indicator function changes to a tachometer.
The suspension is firm, but the ride is comfortable, thanks partly to a fairly long (for the car’s size) 102.4-inch wheelbase. Steering is quick, although a bit heavy even in Normal driving mode. A low center of gravity, 45-series tires on 17-inch wheels, stiff body and sophisticated suspension allow sharp handling. Routine braking is fine, with an easily modulated brake pedal.
The quiet, upscale interior has supportive front bucket seats, gauges that can be quickly read and small but well-marked controls. Four tall adults fit comfortably, but the center of the rear seat is too stiff for a third occupant on anything but short trips.
The cargo area has a low, wide opening and is fairly spacious. Rear seatbacks flip forward and sit flat for a significantly larger cargo area.
Most underhood fluid-filler areas can be easily reached, although a small plastic cover hides one of them and must be flipped up to get to it.
The CT 200h should be popular among its intended buyer group, even if gasoline prices don’t escalate.
Dan Jedlicka, the former car reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times, has been writing about the automotive industry for more than 40 years. To read more of his articles, visit: www.danjedlicka.com.