Warren Clarke, Automotive Content Editor
We're introduced to the 2011 Lexus CT 200h at a press event held in Delray Beach, Florida, a town that's the less exclusive neighbor to Boca Raton, that famously moneyed Florida retirement enclave. It's a fitting location, given that the CT 200h aims to be the affordable player in the Lexus lineup. With a sub-$30,000 price (the least expensive in the Lexus family) and frugal fuel efficiency, the CT 200h stands poised to beckon fresh blood to the brand's silver-haired customer base.
Lexus executives firmly refer to the CT 200h as a five-door compact, but as we take our first look at the car in the bright Florida sun, its sheet metal tells a humbler story. This is a hatchback, no two ways about it, a car meant to occupy the space in your imagination between a Mazda 3 five-door and an Audi A4 Avant.
It's also a hybrid, the fifth in the Lexus family, with the same powertrain as the Toyota Prius. As we'd expected, this translates into fuel economy that's the best in the premium compact segment, but what we didn't expect is how much fun the CT 200h is to drive. Though it's no overachiever in straight-line acceleration, this Lexus feels tightly buttoned up, with sharp, responsive steering. Hybrids aren't usually this entertaining, least of all those that share parts with a Prius.
Thin but diverse, the herd of premium compacts includes the lively BMW 1 Series, the handsome Volvo C30 and the luxurious, eco-minded Audi A3 TDI. Less pricey than most of its rivals and more frugal at the pump than all, the Lexus CT 200h distinguishes itself as a value-oriented luxury car that just happens to be a hybrid.
A 1.8-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine and a pair of electric motors combine to give the Lexus CT 200h some 134 horsepower, while an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (CVT) works as ringleader. In Edmunds testing, the CT 200h jogs from a standstill to 60 mph in a torpid 10.4 seconds on the way to a pass through the quarter-mile in 17.6 seconds at 78.8 mph, but don't let this discourage you, since in real-world driving, the CT feels reasonably well-powered and responsive in most situations. It comes to a stop from 60 mph in 120 feet, a reasonable effort considering its less-than-sticky, low-rolling-resistance tires.
If the car feels lighter on its feet than any other Lexus, it's because it is. Lexus engineers kept its heft down to a modest 3,130 pounds, making it both the trimmest model in the automaker's fleet and the trimmest model in its segment.
We exploit the CT's playfulness by putting it in "Sport" mode and the drive mode knob indicates our choice by lighting up in bold crimson. Throttle response instantly becomes more aggressive and steering sharpens, since this mode modifies their settings for quicker response each time the driver taps the gas pedal or turns the wheel. Sport mode also dials back the car's stability and traction control systems, allowing us more direct control of the Lexus.
Switching to "Eco" mode turns the illumination on the drive mode knob a soothing shade of blue (though wouldn't green be more appropriate?). This mode promises optimum fuel efficiency and low emissions, and it gives the CT a more serious-minded personality. To discourage the sort of aggressive inputs that hurt fuel economy, throttle feel becomes numb, like a moist sponge. Its muddy handling here reminds us that, yes, this hatch is a blood relative to the Prius.
As our speed slows in anticipation of a red light, we press the "EV" button, switching the CT to all-electric mode. Available only with gentle throttle inputs, an adequately charged battery and at speeds of less than 28 mph, this mode allows the vehicle to travel solely on electric power for up to a mile, delivering silent, emissions-free cruising.
The light turns green and we crawl in EV mode for a while longer, until honks from the queue of motorists behind us force us to pick up the pace. We switch to "Normal" mode. More engaging than Eco and more frugal than Sport, this setting offers a balance that will likely make it the mode of choice for most drivers. For our tastes, though, while both Eco and Normal modes are fine on surface streets, they leave the CT feeling sluggish when faced with quick-moving highway traffic.
Though the CT shares a drivetrain with the Prius, it's slightly less fuel-efficient, largely due to the fact that the Prius is lighter on the scale and shod with tires that offer less rolling resistance. Still, the CT is frugal enough to be tops in its circle of competitors. Lexus estimates its mileage at 43 mpg city/40 mpg highway and 42 mpg combined, making its combined mileage 8 mpg better than that of its closest rival.
Although the CT 200h's suspension features the usual MacPherson struts in front and a fully independent, double-wishbone suspension in back, this is the first Lexus to offer a lateral performance damper system. It's a unique design meant to reduce body vibrations and promote a more comfortable ride, and this technology helps give the car a well-planted feeling that's more German than Japanese. Those expecting traditional luxury-car plushness might find ride quality somewhat firm, though, and things can get downright harsh and brittle in Sport mode.
We find the front seats comfortable and nicely padded, but some might find them a little low-slung. To give the car's cabin a sporty feel, Lexus designed the seats with a low hip point, which means that ingress and egress require a little more effort than you might expect from a vehicle that isn't a purpose-built performance car. Even the steering column is set at a low angle (21 degrees), though it can be customized via tilting and telescoping.
The CT's cabin remains mostly tranquil as we hustle from one road to the next. However, the inline-4 can sound ragged when pushed and its wail occasionally creeps into the cabin.
We like the placement of the CT 200h's shift lever, as it sits high on the graceful slope of the driver-angled center stack in a perch that allows us to manipulate it with minimum effort. There's not much room for in-cabin storage, though, since the glovebox, door bins and center bin are all too small to shoulder any meaningful burden.
The relatively straightforward navigation system is governed by Lexus' Remote Touch controller, which is essentially a mouse that sits on the driver side of the center console. Its placement is indicative of the thoughtful ergonomics found throughout the cabin; there's almost zero exertion required to grasp it, given that it rests mere millimeters away from where the driver's hand naturally falls on his thigh.
We're surprised to find that with the front seat adjusted for a driver roughly 6 feet tall, there's enough room in the cramped-looking rear seat for a passenger of similar height. The CT 200h is able to pull off this magic trick due to its cleverly constructed front seatbacks, which feature recessed hollows that eke out additional knee room for those seated in the second row.
Luggage capacity is 14.3 cubic feet, which is more than you'll find in the 1 Series but less than that of the A3 and C30. Rear visibility is passable but not great, given that the car's C-pillar is substantial and sizable rear-seat headrests obstruct the view.
Design/Fit and Finish
The CT 200h's low stance and fastback silhouette give it an appealingly sporty look, but its sheet metal calls to mind more economical hatchbacks, which could be a turn-off for the most premium-minded buyers.
Within the cabin, soft-touch surfaces quilt the most heavily trafficked contact points. Leather upholstery is available but our test car is lined with a synthetic imitation that's 50 percent lighter and a perfectly acceptable substitute. The look of the cabin is modern and upscale, save for the radio's dated-looking panel layout and display screen.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2011 Lexus CT 200h is a good pick for shoppers who want Lexus prestige without sticker shock and steep fuel bills. It's also a solid bet for those in search of a less ubiquitous, more high-end alternative to the frugal Prius.
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