An afternoon drive through the French countryside in the 2011 Lexus CT 200h makes you grateful that Europe exists. See, the citizens of the fine continent have already figured out that hatchbacks are a better alternative to SUVs, probably because they live in 600-year-old chateaus and medieval-serf tract homes along narrow roads. It's the kind of landscape that demands un-huge cars that handle well around blind corners and sadistic tour buses, cars like the CT 200h.
We didn't expect such lively handling from the CT 200h. It's a hybrid after all, and one that shares its underpinnings with the notably dead-feeling Lexus HS 250h and Toyota Prius.
The difference among the three cars is largely intent. Lexus built the CT 200h for the European market, where it hopes to sell 25,000-30,000 CTs a year. Lexus has no such grand plans in the United States, where it expects to sell half as many of these hybrid hatchbacks. Priced just above $30,000, it will slot in under the IS 250 when it goes on sale in February 2011.
Company officials hope that 75 percent of CT 200h customers will be setting foot in a Lexus dealership for the first time.
Lexus is counting on the fact that if you're among these newbies, you already like small cars. You might be looking to move up from a Mazda 3 or a Volkswagen GTI, or maybe you're already shopping the Audi A3, which happens be a key rival to the Lexus CT 200h, along with the BMW 1 Series and Volvo C30.
Both five-door hatchbacks, the 2011 Lexus CT 200h and A3 have almost exactly the same footprint. The CT's 102.4-inch wheelbase, 60-inch front track and 59.8-inch rear track are all within an inch of the A3.
At 170.1 inches, the CT 200h is the shortest car in the Lexus lineup. It's about the same height as the IS sedan, as designers fought the urge to make it awkwardly tall like the HS sedan. Lexus hasn't released a maximum cargo capacity figure, but we don't expect the 2011 CT 200h to beat the A3's 39 cubic feet by much.
You could still get a medium-size dog back here if you needed to, which is good since the French won't leave their pooches home alone. Also, we can coax 5 feet 10 inches of opinionated journalist into the Lexus CT 200h's backseat with our knees just grazing the front seatbacks. We don't know about golf clubs, but baguettes fit fine in the CT 200h if you lay them across the backseat.
The Power of a Prius
Most hatchbacks in Europe are slow cars, but you'd never know that from the way the Europeans drive their little Peugeots. They're unafraid of full throttle and they know how to carry momentum. So they'll be ready for the 2011 Lexus CT 200h, which shares its drivetrain with the Prius.
Under the hood of the entry-level Lexus, you have Toyota's 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine running on the Atkinson cycle (the fuel-miser variation on the four-stroke cycle) that makes 98 horsepower and 105 pound-feet of torque. It joins forces with a front-drive electric motor that runs off the 36-kilowatt nickel-metal hydride battery pack under the cargo floor. A simplified planetary-type continuously variable transmission (CVT) blends the two power sources and drives the front wheels. Net horsepower is 134.
Lexus says it takes 9.8 seconds to reach 60 mph (the last Prius we tested took 10.1), and that feels about right as we merge into traffic with French commuters, the 1.8-liter working hard to reach the 120-km/h speed limit. In an effort to squeeze a little more urgency out of the drivetrain, we twist the CT 200h's "Drive Mode Select" dial to "Sport." Similar to the Prius' "Power" mode, Sport provides sharper response to pedal inputs (but doesn't alter wide-open-throttle performance) and, unique to the CT, morphs the battery charge meter into a tachometer. Cool. Then, we realize the tach needle is just going to hover around the same rpm, because the Atkinson-cycle engine has a narrow power band and the CVT wants to keep it there.
There are Normal, Eco and EV modes as well. In its current Ni-MH state, the Lexus CT 200h can only play in electric mode for a couple miles on a full charge. A switch to lithium-ion batteries with plug-in capability à la the forthcoming Prius PHV would obviously increase that range. "If we hear enough interest and enthusiasm for a plug-in hybrid version, we would love to introduce it as quickly as possible," Osamu Sadakata, chief engineer for the Lexus CT 200h, told us.
Lexus estimates the 2011 CT 200h will earn a 42 city/41 highway/42 combined mpg EPA rating — down from the Prius' 50 combined mpg rating. Lexus officials tell us the CT 200h is disadvantaged by its higher curb weight (nearly 100 extra pounds), less slippery bodywork, less aggressive regenerative braking characteristics and wider, grippier tires — P215/45R17 87V Michelin Primacy MXV4s versus the P195/65R15 89S Yokohamas on a base Prius.
The diesel-fueled A3 TDI eclipses the CT 200h's preliminary highway figure at 42 mpg, but lack of hybrid piety drags its city rating down to 30 mpg and results in 34 mpg combined. You'll get home to your chateau a little quicker, though, as the Audi (140 hp, 236 lb-ft of torque) reaches 60 mph in an estimated 9.1 seconds. The pricier HS 250h blasts to 60 in a heady 8.7 seconds and rates 35 mpg combined.
The Personality of a GTI?
Apart from its lack of hurry, the 2011 Lexus CT 200h doesn't feel much like a Prius. Indeed, its character reminds us more of an A3 or a Volkswagen GTI. Like the HS 250h, the CT has an independent double-wishbone rear suspension instead of a Prius-spec torsion beam.
However, Lexus engineers have gone a step further here and fitted laterally mounted Yamaha-designed dampers front and rear. These dampers are in addition to the regular shocks, of course, and they basically look and act like strut tower braces (up front, extension rods connect the damper to each strut). The idea is to increase rigidity without creating so much vibration that you feel as if you're in a Jell-O mold.
Lexus hasn't gone and created a hot hatch (not with 134 horses), but the CT 200h's willingness to change direction is enough to rouse us from an early-morning haze. This hatchback settles down quickly through corners and keeps its composure over uneven pavement. The electric-power-assisted steering increases in effort level in Sport mode, and we find it nicely weighted and precise when evading buses. Feedback still isn't all there, but it's a good setup for a front-drive Lexus.
Only when we slow up to enter sleepy villages are we reminded that the 2011 Lexus CT 200h is anything other than a cool Germanic hatchback. The way this car turns in, you expect the brakes to bite quickly. But this is a hybrid, so there's a brief regenerative phase before the normal friction brakes are applied, so the CT 200h doesn't stop with quite the authority we'd like.
Not Deluxe, but Does It Matter?
Lexus calls the standard leatherette upholstery in the 2011 CT 200h "NuLuxe." It's nice stuff for vinyl, but it's one example of the different spin on luxury in the entry-level Lexus. Everything in this cabin feels well put together, but neither the design nor the materials is anything special. The center stack looks a bit haphazard, with a shrunken audio head unit that would be unwelcome in a Corolla. If you actually want to see your iPod playlists as you scroll, the optional top-of-dash navigation unit is a must.
Of course, you'll find such compromises in the A3, 1 Series and the IS 250, too. It's inevitable when you keep moving the entry to entry-level luxury car ownership closer and closer to the workaday cars.
If you've never known the old, opulent side of Lexus, the CT 200h might not even feel like a step down. As for us, we've basked in the soft leather chairs of more elite Lexus models, and still the 2011 Lexus CT 200h feels like a significant development in the company's history.
Here's a car that feels right at home on twisty French back roads, and it just happens to be a hybrid that gets 40 mpg. The Europeans will likely love it. In the U.S., however, it will be more of an acquired taste.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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