2011 Lexus CT 200h: First Drive Page 2

October 31, 2010
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.

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