We're always looking for an emotional connection with a car, but a hybrid just never hugs us back. What are we meant to do, hug a tree or two as we congratulate ourselves on singlehandedly saving the earth?
But what if there was a hybrid that the rest of us actually cared to drive, yet still rated a combined 42 mpg?
The 2011 Lexus CT 200h is supposed to be just such a machine, a hybrid that offers (so its promotional material promises) "superior handling and a dynamic driving experience."
The basis for the 2011 Lexus CT 200h is a version of the Toyota MC platform, which underpins the Corolla, Matrix and Prius, as well as the Lexus HS 250h and Scion XB. The CT 200h is more than a Prius with a fancy-pants body, though, as it has independent rear suspension (the Prius makes do with a torsion beam), and the chassis has been tuned differently, including a unique steering calibration.
A stronger Prius connection is apparent in the CT's drivetrain. Like Toyota's compact hybrid, this Lexus has a 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle inline-4 that puts out 98 horsepower and 105 pound-feet of torque, and it has been combined with an 80-hp (60-kilowatt) electric motor than churns out peak torque of 152 lb-ft.
The electric motor gets its juice from a 27 kW/36-hp nickel-metal hydride battery pack located beneath the load floor. The blended output of 134 hp (yes, identical to the Prius, but tuned with Lexus-specific software) powers the front wheels via a continuously variable transmission (CVT).
For all this, the Lexus CT 200h doesn't exactly set your hair on fire under acceleration. Despite our best efforts -- including power braking and running with Drive Mode Select switched to Sport -- the CT just won't meander to 60 mph from a standstill any quicker than 10.4 seconds (10.0 seconds with a 1-foot rollout as on a drag strip).
This means the Lexus CT is 0.3 second slower to 60 mph than that bastion of boring, the Toyota Prius. Maybe it's not surprising when you consider the CT weighs 3,240 pounds, some 198 pounds more than the Prius (due to luxury equipment or extra lard, depending on your viewpoint). The CT 200h does the quarter-mile in 17.6 seconds at 78.8 mph.
Away from the test track the CT doesn't feel like the slug that the numbers suggest. Once away from a stop, the CVT holds engine revs to about 4,500 rpm, so there's enough oomph to accelerate up highway on-ramps without getting squashed by semis as you merge. It even feels plentiful in the critical range between zero mph and 60 mph, although prodding the right pedal once you're above 70 mph yields little in return.
Of course there's the typical motorboating at high rpm that you get from a CVT any time you call down to the engine/motor room for more power. Around town, though, the CT performs effortlessly, and the transition as the CT goes from engine off at stoplights to engine ignition and engagement is seamless, as is the transition from low-speed all-electric power to engine power.
Quiet, all-electric power is what makes driving the CT so different from a conventional car, but good luck making practical use of this vehicle's EV mode. It's theoretically available at speeds up to 28 mph and for up to 1 mile, but if you press on the throttle pedal at any more than a level that might crush an eggshell, the engine comes to life. If you want to sneak up on people, you're going to have to buy a Chevrolet Volt or Nissan Leaf instead.
When you hop into the CT 200h's low-slung seat, it's immediately apparent that this is no Prius. First of all, it does offer different driving modes, and when you engage Sport, the throttle response quickens, the steering effort increases and the stability control intervenes less intrusively, plus the instruments turn from Hybrid Blue to Angry Red. The increased effort level of the electric-assist steering is noticeable, and the feel is syrupy.
To its credit the CT 200h feels tossable as we start to weave around the cones of our slalom test, but then the nondefeat stability system hits the brakes just as you're getting the fun going. Nevertheless, the CT's effort of 63.2 mph is reasonably quick, demolishing the Prius (59.1 mph), besting the HS 250h (62.9 mph) and approaching the Honda CR-Z (64.1 mph).
The CT's skid pad number of 0.86g is on par with competitors such as the Audi A3 (0.86g) and Volvo C30 (0.85g), and also gives a hint of what this car might be capable of if only the stability control nanny wasn't so overbearing.
The CT rides on the firm side for a Lexus, and it seems incapable of soaking up sharp bumps with the resiliency for which other Lexus sedans are famous. Yet on most roads it delivers a smooth, well-damped ride, while the cabin is nearly silent and free of wind and road noise.
Because the 2011 Lexus CT 200h is meant to be a sporty hybrid, we felt it only prudent to see how it would perform on a mountain road. Turns out, a 3,240-pound hybrid with 59 percent of its weight resting on the front tires doesn't provide for an overly joyous experience. It's more fun than, say, walking, but there's nothing about it that resembles any sport-oriented car you can think of.
The combination of meager power, near-zero engine braking, weak brakes and a lack of steering feel means this car responds far from adroitly when you throw it into a corner. It doesn't do anything horribly wrong, but the lack of feedback from the powertrain, the chassis and the controls means you're just not 100 percent sure what the car is doing.
Cornering grip from the P215/45R17 Michelin Primacy MXM4 all-season tires is actually quite good, and the stability system proves nowhere near as intrusive as it is at the test track.
With a starting price of $29,995 (including destination), the 2011 Lexus CT 200h will be the cheapest Lexus on the lot when it goes on sale this March. But you wouldn't know it from the interior.
With soft-touch materials and a first-rate set of comfortable yet supportive sport seats, the CT's cabin is a nice place to spend time. The small-diameter, thick-rimmed leather-wrapped steering wheel is also a tactile delight. And tech geeks will get a kick out of the computer-mouselike controller for the navigation system ($2,445), complete with an ergonomic wrist rest.
Despite the cabin's sloping roof line, there's plenty of head- and legroom for rear-seat passengers, although small rear doors hamper ingress/egress. Luggage room is adequate at 14.3 cubic feet, which turns into a truly spacious amount as you fold the rear seats flat.
So the 2011 Lexus CT 200h's performance numbers don't make it the first coming of a truly sporting hybrid, after all. Driving enthusiasts will have to wait for something better.
But if you're looking for terrific fuel mileage -- we averaged 39.8 mpg over 612 miles -- in a Euro-esque hatchback with a whole lot less dork factor than a typical hybrid, this could be your car, especially since it lives up to Lexus standards of luxury and quality. Just don't expect to get emotionally attached.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
The Edmunds TCO® estimated monthly insurance payment for a 2011 Lexus CT 200h in NJ is: