Saturday, May 7, 2011

2011 Lexus CT 200h is a foxy, feisty take on the Prius

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Take a Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrid, shorten it for a more fetching proportion, but sacrifice rear-seat legroom. Lower the roof for sex appeal, at the expense of spaciousness. Modify the chassis to improve handling. Ta-dah, you wind up with a Lexus CT 200h.

  • The 2011 Lexus CT 200h.


    The 2011 Lexus CT 200h.


The 2011 Lexus CT 200h.

Must be the right mix. The car went on sale in March and immediately became the third-best-selling Lexus, behind the ES 350 entry-level gasoline midsize sedan and the compact IS series.

You might have seen the CT in TV ads suggesting it's the "dark side" of hybrids, a naughty way to save fuel.

Talk about whetting the appetite. Alas, the test car lacked the edge required to live up to that image. It had an agile chassis that made it more fun than most hybrids, however.

Lexus says the CT uses Toyota's MC platform, same as Prius, but has a shorter wheelbase and "was highly modified in various areas. Engineers worked to improve driving dynamics with double-wishbone rear suspension, performance dampers and extensive use of high tensile strength sheet steel and aluminum."

A double-wishbone suspension lets the tires follow the road much better than the solid rear axle common among smaller cars. Performance dampers — shock absorbers — in this case mean stiffer. And the high-strength steel and aluminum lower the weight.

So, plenty of right thinking and right stuff.

But CT lacked a rip-snortin' factor: no push-you-back-in-the-seat acceleration, even using the sport mode that improves response at the expense of gas mileage.

On the other hand, flogged hard, the CT still managed a worthy 39.6 miles per gallon in the 'burbs.

Some of the car's fun factor comes from its ability to let you adjust the drivetrain to your mood. EV (electric vehicle) mode tries to stay on electric power as long as possible. Eco and Normal modes are fuel-mileage oriented. Sport makes the steering and throttle more responsive and backs off the intrusiveness of the stability and traction controls so you can fling the car a bit harder.

Sport also reminds you that you're having fun, in case you forget, by changing the instrument panel ligthing from restful blue to go-get-'em red. And the gauge that otherwise tracks battery charging or draining switches into a tachometer.

Using Sport mode and a heavy right foot, the CT gathered way promptly, if not urgently. But it never felt as if it were accelerating hard — undermining the concept of fun.

In Eco it was pretty sluggish, so using that as a basis, sport did seem lively.

We'd have to call Honda's CR-Z hybrid more fun, especially equipped with the manual transmission. But it's a two-seater, so is less practical than the CT, with its tight but usable back seat.

The Lexus CT 200h looks attractive, seeming almost as if it would be more at home as a premium offering within Toyota's Scion lineup. The tucked and tailored appearance oozes ready-to-rock personality.

The interior's inviting and comfortable, though the price for that styling is the cramped back seat when compared with the Toyota Prius, from which CT gets its underpinnings.

There were the requisite (for a hybrid) odd-ball controls — the computer-mouse-like joy stick for some functions, for instance — but mainly the CT scored high on the nothing-stupid index. You could hop in, head out, have fun. No deep-dive briefing necessary. No geek-like mind-set required to make all the features and functions work. No driving like a weenie in order to get good mileage.

Lots to like about the CT:

•Lets you enjoy the Lexus status and reputation for a relatively (by luxury brand standards) low price.

•Gives you something interesting to eyeball in the garage.

•Provides crisp handling.

•Does all that in a smallish, urban-size package that's easy to park and that slips through traffic easily.

But it's no pocket rocket. If that's what you expect, then CT, despite its many lures, will let you down.

2011 Lexus CT 200h hybrid

What? Small, four-door, front-drive hatchback hybrid based on hardware in Toyota Prius.

When? On sale since March.

Where? Made at Kyushu, Japan.

How much? Starts at $29,995, including $875 shipping. Well-optioned test car was $36,725.

How powerful? Combined rating of gasoline engine, electric motor is 134 horsepower. The 1.8-liter, four-cylinder gas engine rated 98 hp at 5,200 rpm, 142 pounds-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. Electric motor rated 80 hp, torque not specified.

How frisky? Not very, at least judged by the ads calling it the "dark (i.e. fun) side" of hybrids. Toyota lists 0-60 mph at 9.3 seconds (think four-cylinder Camry), top speed of 113 mph.

How big? Half a foot shorter, an inch wider, on 4-inch shorter wheelbase than Prius, resulting in less rear legroom. CT 200h is 170.1 inches long, 69.5 in. wide, 56.7 in. tall on a 102.4-in. wheelbase. Cargo space behind rear seats: 14.3 cubic feet. Weighs 3,130 lbs. Turning circle diameter: 34.2 ft.

How thirsty? Rated 43 miles per gallon in town, 40 mpg highway, 42 combined. Trip computer in test car showed 39.6 mpg (2.53 gallons per 100 miles) in suburban driving. Burns regular; tank holds 11.9 gallons.

Overall: Sexy for a Lexus; fun for a hybrid.

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