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2011 Lexus CT 200h Review By Carey Russ - VIDEO ENHANCED

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2011 Lexus 200h Hybrid


There's nothing like covering all options… and with the debut of its CT 200h earlier this year, Lexus now has three distinct "entry level" choices -- the ES 350 for the traditional American luxury sedan buyer, the IS series for those looking for something sportier and more European in demeanor, and, in the CT, the first-ever hybrid premium compact, and a sporty hybrid premium compact at that.

That's an interesting concept, especially for the American market, not known for friendliness toward hatchbacks. But that is changing as a new generation enters, one that was never exposed to the econoboxes of the now-distant past. And the CT was also developed with Europe in mind, to increase the Lexus presence there.

   •SEE ALSO: Lexus Buyers Guide

Styling sells, and the CT 200h will sell on style. It's eye-catching and interesting. But there is more to it than mere fashion. Proven technology is found in the form of the Toyota/Lexus Hybrid Drive and a chassis structure shared with the Lexus HS 250h. The 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder and associated motor-generator controls are massaged a bit compared to their counterparts found inside the Toyota Prius, with Normal, Sport, and Eco driving modes, and a limited-range (one mile) electric-only (EV) mode. In the chassis department, the suspension is tuned very differently than that of the HS. If you're looking for 0-60 drag race performance, this is not the place. If you're more interested in a car's ability on a twisty, uncrowded backroad at speeds between 25 and 45 mph -- or reflexes in city traffic at those speeds, with the economy, high mileage and low emissions of a hybrid, the versatility of a hatchback, and the comfort and refinement expected from Lexus, here it is.

It's a four-door hatchback that is offered in two trim levels, regular and Premium. The difference? The Premium model comes with a moonroof and heated front seats, and the availability of a long list of option packages including premium audio, navigation, and leather seating for buyers who want more luxury.

Watch TACH's exclusive CT 200h promo video

I first became acquainted with the CT 200h at a press introduction in Palm Springs, California, where I had the opportunity to drive a pre-production example through the mountains south of town. It was interesting, with a much better driving experience than expected, and a 42 mpg average in a mix of mountain road, city street, and highway driving. After that, Lexus chose a CT as their entry in my local automotive journalists association's track day. Again, good handling won out over raw speed, appropriate for that venue. Mileage? Don't ask…

More recently, I've just finished a week with a Premium model with the audio package (including a backup camera) and LED low-beam headlights. It worked well in everyday driving, with quick enough acceleration to deal with highway onramps and merges and great handling, but not at the expense of comfort. Sport mode was the most fun, and that's where I kept it when out of town. In town, Normal is well-suited for most situations, with Eco the choice for crawling traffic. In all, purely electric running was common on level or near-level roads under light throttle at speeds under 40 mph to further improve fuel economy. With no attempt to maximize fuel economy (more the opposite, really) the result was 38 mpg -- and a very pleasant and entertaining driving experience.

The Lexus CT 200h is not a car for everyone, but if you're looking for a mix of environmental economy, refinement, good road manners, and even a bit of performance, it's worth checking out.

APPEARANCE: It's not easy to make a two-box hatchback stand out, but Lexus has done it with the CT 200h. Details make the difference. It's pleasingly busy in detail, with multiple shapes and forms interacting -- but harmoniously and pleasantly, not distractingly. The front gets the latest in Lexus "L-Finesse" design language, with a pinched-double trapezoid shape for the grille and auxiliary opening in the lower bumper fascia. Faux brake ducts at the lower front corners hold foglamps and further develop the sporty look. The sides are chiseled, with prominent fender flares. The rear sees interesting C-pillars and a wraparound backlight to match the taillights. No steroids here -- the overall effect is muscular, but not muscle-bound.

COMFORT: Interior styling is more mainstream Japanese sport-compact than Lexus luxury, but that's appropriate for the CT's market position. Wood not wanted here. Neither, necessarily, is leather -- the standard NuLuxe material looks and feels much like leather, but no animals were involved in its manufacture. Vegan leather! (and leatherette is also standard in most German competitors, so no demerits.) The driver's seat is power-adjustable, while the front passenger's is manual. Seat comfort is as good as expected. Leather is used for the rim of the manually tilt- and telescope-adjustable steering wheel. Auxiliary audio and phone controls are on the spokes, while lights and cruise controls are on stalks. Lexus calls the upper part of the dash the "Display Zone". It has bright Optitron electroluminescent gauges are easy to see in all light conditions. The lower part, and the center stack, are the Operation Zone, with commonly-used controls placed for convenient use. Therein is found the shifter, to the right of the steering wheel, the mode-selection knob, EV mode switch, and audio and climate controls. All controls are in logical places, nothing is confusing.

Changing the driving mode changes the gauge to the left of the steering wheel. In Sport, it becomes a tachometer; in other modes an eco-driving aid. Backlighting, normally blue, changes to red is Sport mode. The rear seat offers comfortable accommodation for two medium-sized adults. As is typical in most cars today, the center position is best used by someone small, for a short time. Cargo capacity is good, and a cover is standard equipment.

SAFETY: The CT has a full suite of passive and active safety features, with a strong unibody structure with front and rear crumple zones, front, front knee, front seat side, and full-length side curtain airbags, and whiplash injury-lessening front seats among the passive features and four-wheel antilock disc brakes with Smart Stop Technology, brake assist, electronic brake force distribution, electronic controlled braking, Vehicle Stability Control stability management, and traction control some of the active features.

RIDE AND HANDLING: This is where the CT 200h shines. Combine its rigid long-wheelbase chassis, well-tuned fully-independent MacPherson strut front, double wishbone rear suspension, and attention to detail in noise, vibration, and harshness reduction and the result is a hybrid that handles and is actually fun to drive. No, it's not particularly quick in acceleration or fast in a straight line (see below), but as the old saying goes, it's more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow.

PERFORMANCE: "Performance" in the standard hybrid context means maximum fuel economy and EV operation. And the CT does well enough at that, although with the same power and more weight as a Prius it's neither as quick nor as efficient. No surprise there, you can't beat the laws of physics. The drivetrain is basically the same as the Prius, with a 1.8-liter, 98-horsepower (at 5200 rpm) Atkinson cycle gasoline engine, an 80-horsepower electric motor, and NiMH battery pack working together for a system maximum of 134 horsepower via a computer-controlled continuously-variable transmission (CVT) as a full-hybrid system. The engine alone, motor alone, or any combination thereof can power the car at any given time, with near-seamless transitions. Where the CT works best is in Sport mode between 25 and 45 mph, especially on a nice twisty backroad. It feels like more motor torque is allowed in the mix, which feels like a light-pressure turbo. It works great for powering out of corners, but fades a bit at highway speeds. Which keeps you honest and lessens the traffic school sessions… Under 25 it can take a moment for the motor to come in, not too different from being below the boost zone with a turbo engine. Despite my best efforts to destroy mileage, I still got 38 for the week.

CONCLUSIONS: As a sporty compact hybrid hatchback, the CT 200h is an interesting addition to the Lexus lineup.

Lexus CT 200h

Base Price			$ 30,900
Price As Tested			$ 34,580
Engine Type			DOHC 16-valve Atkinson cycle  inline 4-cylinder with VVT-i variable cam phasing
Engine Size			1.8 liters / 110 cu. in.
Horsepower			98 @ 5200 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			105 @ 4000 rpm
Motor-generator			650V permanent magnet synchronous
  maximum horsepower		80
Battery pack			Nickel-metal hydride
  nominal voltage		201.6 (168 x 1.2vdc cells in 28 modules)
  capacity			6.5 amp-hours
System maximum voltage		650
System maximum horsepower	134
Transmission			electronically-controlled CVT
Wheelbase / Length		102.4 in. / 170.1 in.
Curb Weight			3130 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		23.4
Fuel Capacity			9.9 gal.
Fuel Requirement		87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires				P215/45R17 87V Michelin Primacy mxm4
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc, 
				  ABS, VSC, and regenerative braking
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut /
				  independent double wishbone
Drivetrain			transverse front engine and motor,
				  front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		43 / 40 / 38
0 to 60 mph				9.8  sec

Premium Audio Package with Backup Camera- includes:
  Lexus 10-speaker premium sound system with automatic
  sound levelizer and in-dash 6CD changer, backup camera, 
  electrochromic inside mirror with compass and backup
  camera monitor, Homelink® universal opener
  transceiver						$ 1,475
LED low-beam headlamps with dynamic auto-leveling
  and headlamp washers					$ 1,215
Delivery Charge						$   875

Watch the original introduction of the Lexus CT200h at the 2010 Geneva Motor Show