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.

Prior to our drive, we'd been wondering why Lexus chose the mountains around Palm Springs as a venue for the new hatch's first U.S. drives. After all, it's certainly not where we're going to see its full mpg potential. But it shows some confidence. And it leads to this impression: While the CT's power—and power delivery—might not really be much different than that of the Prius, the CT's handling is a huge step ahead. It's arguably the best-handling compact hybrid vehicle yet.

No excuses needed, this hybrid handles well!

And as we experienced over the rougher road surfaces up at the top of the pass, the CT 200h turns in crisply and can be hustled along surprisingly quickly without jostling passengers; road harshness is kept out of the cabin, yet the suspension is quite firm and the steering manages (in Sport mode) to transmit some road feel and actually kick back on rutted surfaces.

The key to this, Lexus says, is a really rigid body; it's assured more rigidity by adding bracing and spot welds underneath, as well as bracing to the front and rear double-wishbone suspension layouts. In front, the CT borrows heavily from the Prius, while in back it adapts the HS's suspension design. Key to producing such a responsive-feeling vehicle without bringing harshness inside is a reenforcement brace between the front strut towers, incorporating a gas-charged damper in the middle. In back there's a similar solution, and altogether the strategy pays dividends. Combined with that are grippy 245-width, 17-inch rubber and Yamaha dampers that were specially designed for the CT. In quick transitions it feels nimble, not bloated like the HS sedan. Overall, at a curb weight of 3,130 pounds, the CT 200h is slightly heavier than the 2011 Prius yet still 550 pounds lighter than the portly HS.

There are a few decidedly un-sporty hurdles for the CT. The Prius-style shift knob just feels a little out of place in a sportier vehicle, and you won't find paddle-shifters as Toyota's hybrid system allows no provision for selecting an individual ratio for steep grades or maintaining control on curvy roads. For steep downhill grades, you can access more engine braking, as in the Prius, by selecting the 'B' mode with the shift knob, but on long uphills the steady drone of the engine, even though relatively quiet, can be a psychological barrier even if the CT's planetary-gear mechanicals are up to the task.

Just like in the Prius, the CT includes an EV mode. Press a button next to the controller, and provided the battery is properly charged, you go light on the accelerator, and a number of other conditions are met, you can drive for short distances (into parking structures and such) on electric power only—up to about 23 mph on level ground.

Almost Prius mpg

The CT also, like the Prius, features an exhaust-gas recovery system that helps lower emissions and improve fuel economy—and helps reduce the amount the gasoline engine runs in short-trip use.

Mileage of course will vary greatly on conditions. If you drive the CT hard enough, you can see mileage creep down into the 20s, but we predict most people will achieve averages close to the EPA's 42 mpg city, 41 highway ratings. Up into the mountains from Palm Springs and back down again, we averaged about 24 miles per gallon—a true worst-case-scenario reading; but then over about 15 miles of mostly level boulevard driving around Palm Springs, gentle on the throttle, we saw a 49-mpg average. Another test car had been averaging 42 mpg over a longer test route.

The CT is about four inches shorter in wheelbase than the Prius and about five and nearly six inches shorter overall, so we didn't have high expectations for a spacious interior either. But here again, the CT was much better than we'd hoped.

Part of what helps the CT both impart a feeling of spaciousness -and- feel sporty on the road is seating position, which in front and in back was completely redesigned and reconceived versus the Prius and HS 250h. Engineers and interior designers made sure that the 'H-point' of the front seats—the height of the front passengers' hip joints—is actually below the car's center of mass, which alone helps impart a more stable and sporty feeling in sharp cornering.

The 60/40-split seatbacks fold forward in one fluid motion, providing a flat cargo floor that's a little higher than in comparable gas-only hatchbacks, but low enough to still feel roomy for moving a large travel chest or coffee table, for instance. A retractable cargo cover provides privacy in back, and there's plenty of space behind the backseat for a shopping cart's worth of groceries.

Obviously, the switchgear in the CT is familiar Lexus material and mostly impresses; unfortunately, there are a few little details that scream out parts-bin—like the old-style LCD display on the base sound system, which doesn't match the font or display used for climate control; and the chrome shift lever, which seemed to be magnet for smudges. And the more we use Remote Touch—a computer-mouse-like controller that requires you to keep your eyes on the screen for the entire time you're making a selection—the more we wish for either a touch screen, touchpad, or a controller that has tactile feedback. The delicate plastic used atop the center console also felt a little hollow and possibly scratch-prone.

The Big Gulp Brigade has been shunned

Lexus has done a great job incorporating lots of small cubbies—including a shallow tray, along with a deeper but smaller one that's great for setting smart phones on end. Just a couple of inches away are a USB input and power plug, located under a small door (unfortunately, you can't hide a device inside the center console, but it's convenient). Perhaps, a hint that the CT wasn't originally planned for the North American market, there are NO cupholders for backseat passengers. Front seats, however, have two cupholders in the center console plus indentations in the doors good for cans. None of them are Big Gulp size but we don't imagine that will disappoint the Lexus crowd too much.

The rest of the interior feels a step up from lower-priced hatchbacks; a padded material with exposed stitching covers the instrument panel as well as the side of the center console, and the driver's knee—or at least for most adult-sized drivers—rests beside the center console, rather than on it as in the HS, and it feels easier to find a natural driving position. Thankfully, the beltline isn't too high, so even shorter drivers will have a good view out ahead over the hood, as well as to the side; what's more, we found rearward vision to be surprisingly good, despite those thick rear pillars—in part, because you're down at traffic level.

Largely due to its more fashionable roofline and wider rubber, the CT doesn't quite hit Prius levels of aerodynamic efficiency (it's Cd is 0.29, versus the Prius's 0.25), but we didn't notice any wind noise; Lexus has included extensive lower-body aero shielding. Versus the Prius, the CT also has added noise and vibration insulation for the engine, and compared with what Lexus considers chief rivals (the Volvo C30, BMW 1-Series and Audi A3 are included), the CT is quieter both inside and out at full throttle, the automaker says.

All the safety features that are expected in an entry luxury vehicle come in the CT—and that includes stability control, anti-lock brakes, Brake Assist, and eight standard airbags (including knee bags for both front occupants). A Pre-Collision Safety System is available.

Tech-savvy feature set takes aim at Gen X/Y

The CT isn't lacking in standard features either. Lexus appears to have hit all the commonly desired features—including plenty for those younger, more tech-savvy shoppers. Bluetooth hands-free calling and audion support is standard; so is full iPod control, XM Satellite Radio, a Smart Access system with push-button start, and the Lexus Safety Connect emergency and concierge system. Dual-zone climate control, cruise control, and steering-wheel audio controls are also included.

There's plenty of potential for options, and we predict that choosing liberally from the list will drive the CT's sub-$30,000 base sticker price up over the $40k mark. Possibilities include LED headlamps with washers, a power moonroof, heated front seats, an in-mirror backup camera, rain-sensing wipers, and a couple of substantial packages that bundle premium audio with a moonroof and/or hard-drive based navigation. Nav systems also include the Lexus Enform information system. A device holder for iPhones and the like is on the way, as are several F-Sport performance accessories.

So do we like the CT? In short: yes, very much—and even though the Honda CR-Z offers a manual gearbox, we'd rather be driving the Lexus for its better handling, better ride, and very functional design. You get almost all of the benefits of the Prius—including a hybrid-exclusive shape, without the Prius's aversion to corners.

On the second try with a compact hybrid, we think Lexus has a winner here. Especially in base form, the CT should represent a strong value—both as a way of entering the Lexus brand and as an exciting new green icon.

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