2011 Lexus CT 200h: First Drive

October 31, 2010
Remember the Lexus HS 250h that was introduced last year? Yes? Well kindly forget about it for the moment and reboot. Actually, consider it a full-on system crash and reinstall; all is well again and Lexus is back on track with what hybrid shoppers want.

That's how we felt after spending part of a day driving Lexus' all-new hybrid, the 2011 Lexus CT 200h. It's an iconic, stylish, and actually quite fun-to-drive car, with Lexus levels of refinement; and from a short several-hour driving impression, it looks like it will deliver the sort of fuel economy that no-compromises Gen X and Gen Y buyers expect.

Take one even brief look up close at the CT, or look inside, and you'll find it isn't at all a hatchback version of the HS. Although there might be a few parts shared with the HS, it's essentially a different design—building on Prius goodness and moving forward with some other pieces and concepts from other Toyota/Lexus models and becoming a model that stands alone. Just to clear up any further confusion, the CT is not at all related to the European-market (Corolla-based) Aurus Hybrid, either. In profile, the CT is lower and more aggressive looking than you might imagine; the closest product to compare it to in size, profile, and styling cues is the MazdaSpeed3.

L-finesse meets hot hatch

The side profile of the new CT 200h is clean and neat, combining Lexus's flowing L-finesse design language—evident in the smoothly curved sheetmetal and gently arced back pillar—with a pert, even slightly aggressive hatchback profile. In front, the CT has a slightly scaled-down interpretation of the same Lexus front end and grille as the IS family, with even more modern, detailed headlamps with 'eyebrow' marker lamps and a chunky, low air dam, while in back the thin, tapered taillamps and sharp, roof-extended spoiler add a more aggressive look. Overall, the CT looks like a city-savvy hot hatch, ready to take on the Subaru WRX, Volkswagen GTI, or Speed3.

Colors are also quite adventurous for Lexus—including hues such as sparkly Daybreak Yellow Mica and Matador Red Mica tones, and light, glossy Starfire Pearl and Tungsten Pearl shades. The interior can be had in a stylish two-tone charcoal/caramel combination, along with several blacks and grays; upholsteries include a newly standard NuLuxe synthetic in Black, Ecru, or Caramel, with Black or Water Gray leather optional. Simple black, bamboo or ash burl wood, or metal trims complete the look.

Inside it's a different story; the CT is way more upscale in look and feel than any of those other non-luxury hatches, and it's less smooth and organic in design than the exterior. The instrument panel doesn't even vaguely resemble those of the Prius or Lexus HS; it's somewhat low-set, with horizontal creases and a thick center console—truly a hybrid interior design pairing a cockpit feel with an airy design. According to Lexus, there's an (upper) display zone, while most of the controls are relegated to the (lower) control zone that's part of the center console, jutting upward.

At least initially, the CT 200h Hybrid doesn't give a lot of hints that the driving experience is actually going to fit the CT's sporty promise. Just as in the Prius, the hybrid powertrain combines a 98-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine with a 650-volt (battery peak 36-hp) electric motor system, altogether making 134 horsepower, and as you nudge the little Prius-style shift lever over and down to 'D' and get underway, it doesn't feel particularly energetic or pulse-raising. Learn to ignore the little Eco gauge and the not at all sporty protestations of the engine and put your right foot into it a little more, and it's more promising.

Just below the sound system there's a dial. Twist it to the left and you enter Eco mode, which has muted throttle responses and limits drive voltage (except under full throttle) to 500 volts. Press the controller to return to Normal, or if you're the target customer for the CT you'll probably like Sport mode, which reduces power-steering assist, provides a more aggressive tip in and throttle calibration, and brings a peak electric-motor boost of 650 volts even at partial throttle. If you're going to Sport, from Eco or Norm, the projected face of the analog Eco gauge at the left of the gauge cluster changes and it becomes a tachometer; and just to remind you, the color projected down onto the gauge cluster changes from blue to red.

Sport mode for a personality change

Actually, we recommend that if you're faced with open, curvy, or hilly roads—on a weekend outing, perhaps—you just skip straight to Sport mode, because it's there that the CT 200h just feels right.

Switch the CT over to Sport mode, and although we felt no real difference from normal on a steep grade it really does feel more eager when squeezing the throttle to ease into a gap in traffic, or taking off out of a tight corner. If you happen to be driving in Eco mode, the CT can feel downright sluggish out of a tight right-hander, as you wait for the intentionally lagged throttle response to kick in. Although Eco might help hypermiler types get better mileage, we suspect that other drivers will simply press harder on that gas.

Lexus has said that the CT takes just under ten seconds to get to 60 mph (slightly faster than the Prius). Yet somehow it feels even a bit faster than that—perhaps due to, at least in Sport mode, how quick the hybrid system can be with transitions.

Substantively, engaging Sport mode also enables a performance calibration for the traction and stability control; we noted the difference between modes on a tight side-road right-hander; we floored the accelerator out of a tight, low-speed corner first in Normal, then in Sport. While the inside front wheel squealed loose both times, we noted that Sport mode doesn't break momentum in the same way by cutting engine power.

During most of our few hours and 120-plus miles with the CT, we drove in Sport mode; there, thanks to the earlier electric boost and more aggressive tip-in it almost feels like a sporty-handling hatchback with a larger-displacement four.

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