Lexus CT 200h — Hybrid mileage in luxury clothes

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Lexus’ second attempt at a pure hybrid vehicle, the 2011 CT 200h, is a step forward from its first effort, which came to market in the 2010 model year and sells as the HS 250h.

But the tuned suspension in Lexus’ newest effort, pointing toward the sporty side, is virtually lost in the typical hybrid performance, which is tepid at best even in what is optimistically called the sport mode.

If you push the compact CT 200h on your favorite winding road you might notice that it’s firmer and more planted, than your typical Toyota Prius or Honda Insight. But there isn’t enough horsepower or torque to really take advantage of the engineers’ suspension tuning efforts.

And that begs the question, who takes their 40 mpg hybrid out for a weekend workout?

Virtually no one, we surmise. So the reward of a better driving car comes in the daily chores of life and, indeed, we can see a small measure of return on more rewarding handling and a stiffer, more sports-car like suspension.

The real attribute of the newest hybrid Lexus is the 43 mpg city and 40 highway that it is advertised to return. And that is an attractive feature in an entry-level luxury car as gas prices waver in the $4.00 range.

But don’t expect any great level of performance from a derivative of Toyota’s current hybrid powertrain setup even after watching the intriguing ads that proclaim the CT 200h as “the darker side of green.” You may be sorely disappointed, despite the advertising footage.

Here are the unimpressive numbers — 0 to 60 in 10 seconds, no faster than the mainstream Prius, and the quarter-mile with foot to the floor in a relaxing 17.6 seconds. With these numbers the CT 200h easily falls into the bottom 10 percent in performance regardless of price, segment or mileage for new vehicles sold in the U.S. this year.

All that being said we found in a strenuous Southern California mountain drive, using all the mode selections, the Lexus was adequate; stiff enough to make the handling fun and compliant enough to make the ride comfortable. On the minus side there was an elevated road noise in our test car, something we would expect from the lower-priced Prius, but not in a vehicle with the Lexus badge attached.

In addition to excellent fuel economy, your money will purchase an attractive five-door hatchback. Its design character is possibly the best in the Lexus stable outside of the SC class cars and far better than the benign vanilla of the balance of the primary market Lexus lineup.

Where the aforementioned HS 250h had every conceivable techno contrivance that ran up the price, the CT has the basics. Sure, it has made some of the trick stuff available, but Lexus is not shoving it down your throat this time. Starting price is a reasonable $29,995 including destination charges.
Included for the 30 grand is the 134-horsepower Prius drivetrain, which includes a 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine, two electric-motor generators and a continuously variable transmission. The drivetrain comes with three mode selections — normal, eco and sport.

Standard features include 17-inch wheels; electric steering that gets a bit weightier in sport mode for better steering feel and quicker inputs; a push button starter; Bluetooth connectivity and dual climate controls. Beyond the base CT 200h is a Premium edition that starts at $31,775 and adds heated front seats and a sunroof.

Several stand alone options are available along with four packages. The smart package selection is the $2,445 audio/moonroof/navigation group that includes voice activation and backup camera. The large navigation screen which rises from the top of the IP was very readable without the need for our usual reading glasses although we were a bit dismayed at the procedures needed to access such information as radio presets.

It required a mouse-type controller to point a computer screen arrow at the necessary icon and then repeat the procedure to get the pre-set station. We admit this system is intuitive and does not require “book learning” to figure out, but it requires the driver to take his eyes off the road and, for lack of a better example, to operate a computer screen for a few seconds.

It seems in all its vehicles Lexus has moved from what used to be one of the easier systems to operate in the luxury ranks into a tedious exercise. Otherwise we found the gauges easy to read and the cockpit setup more than adequate.

We found the cabin generally upscale and comfortable. The front seats sit occupants up high enough for a panoramic view of the road. As with virtually all compacts, rear seat leg room is barely adequate and is best for small children. Because of the hatchback design, luggage space behind the seats is a useable 14.3 cubic feet.

The car’s smallish size — 170 inches long — yields a very tight turning radius of 34.2 feet making very practical especially in mall parking lots.

Safety features have not been overlooked and include four-wheel antilock brakes with brake assist, a full complement of airbags, stability and traction control, and Safety Connect, a telematics service with automatic collision notification, a stolen vehicle locator and emergency assistance.

Our test car was the top-line Premium edition with three packages — navigation, premium audio and leather — bringing the bottom line to $37,024.

While we consider the CT 200h generally well done we think the “darker side of green” ads are more than a bit overblown. We would opt for the Prius, save 5 to 10 grand, and gain seven miles to the gallon, unless that luxury badge gives some meaning to your life.

Base price: $29,995; as driven, $37,024
Engine: 1-8-liter 4-cylinder, 2 electric motors
Horsepower: 134 @ 5,200 rpm
Torque: 142 pound-feet @ 4,000 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: continuously variable
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 102.4 inches
Length: 170.1 inches
Curb weight: 3,130 pounds
Turning circle: 34.2 feet
Luggage capacity: 14.3 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 11.9 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 40 mpg highway, 43 mpg city
0-60: 10 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Lincoln MKZ hybrid, Toyota Prius, Lexus HS 250h

The Good:
• Excellent fuel economy
• Nicely crafted interior
• Good handling for a hybrid

The Bad:
• Basic functions force driver's eyes off the road

The Ugly:
• Lacks adequate acceleration