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2012 Lexus CT Hybrid 200h Premium Review By Carey Russ

2012 Lexus CT Hybrid 200h Premium (select to view enlarged photo)

…yes a hybrid can be fun to drive, if it's a Lexus CT 200h.!


2012 Lexus CT Hybrid 200h Premium

"Performance-oriented luxury hybrid hatchback." What's wrong with this phrase?

Nothing, if the car so described is the Lexus CT 200h. Which has been a surprising success, unlike the mostly-unlamented late HS250 sedan.

Why the difference? Style, for sure, as the CT is eye-catching, with interesting lines and a jaunty hatchback body that appeals to a young upscale clientele that likely grew up in SUVs (which can be seen as over-sized hatchbacks…) and have no memories of the low-rent hatches of the 70s and 80s. Add in exemplary fuel economy -- over 40 mpg in the real world, on unleaded regular -- plus Lexus comfort and cachet, and, if the CT is really more "sporty" than "sports", it's one sporty, maneuverable, and easily-parkable car that's as well-suited for a trip across states as it is for commuting.

Introduced for model year 2011, the CT unsurprisingly enters its sophomore year mostly unchanged. Besides the usual differences in color choices and revamping of option packages, there is a vehicle proximity notification system similar to that on the CT's Prius cousins. It makes a low-pitched whirring sound at low speeds in electric mode to alert pedestrians and bicyclists that there is a vehicle nearby.

As before the two trim levels are standard and Premium, which has standard heated front seats and a moonroof, and a long list of possible options and option packages for buyers who want more luxury and/or connectivity features.

Plenty of which were on my recent test car, a Premium with the Audio Package, Navigation Package (with a hard disc-based navigation system, backup camera, and the Lexus Enform telematics and assistance system plus XM NavTraffic and weather and sports and stock quotes) and the F-Sport Package. Which, while primarily cosmetic, does include a firmer suspension tuning to bring out the sport in the car's character. It's by no means harsh, it's a Lexus after all, but it does improve the fun-to-drive factor and yes a hybrid can be fun to drive. If it's a Lexus CT 200h.

APPEARANCE: It's not easy to make a two-box hatchback stand out, but Lexus has done it with the CT 200h. Details and proportions make the difference. It's pleasingly busy in detail, with multiple shapes and forms interacting -- but harmoniously and pleasantly, not distractingly. The hood seems longer than usual, especially for a transverse front-engined car, so the body proportions are almost more "wagon" than "hatchback". The new Lexus hourglass "spindle" grille was presaged here, with the front bumper bar separating mirrored trapezoidal upper and lower intakes. 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, even with the larger spoiler of the F-Sport package.

COMFORT: Inside, 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, 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. New this year is the Vehicle Proximity Notification System, which alerts nearby pedestrians to the otherwise nearly-silent car running in EV mode at low speed by emitting a whirring sound.

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 even in standard trim. Add the F-Sport package's firmer tuning for more responsive handling and the CT is the best-handling mainstream hybrid going. 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 it is to drive a fast car slow.

PERFORMANCE: There's no relation to Toyota's gasoline-electric Le Mans racing prototype, but the CT 200h does have more of a performance character than any other current mass-market hybrid. "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 about 200 pounds more weight as a Prius Liftback it's not quite as efficient. Reprogramming of the CVT controller makes up the difference for acceleration. The drivetrain is basically the same as the Prius Liftback, 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 42 for the week.

CONCLUSIONS: The Lexus CT 200h combines entry-Lexus luxury and comfort with the practicality of a five-door hatchback body and a level of handling and fun-to-drive character unexpected from a hybrid. And still gets 40mpg or better.

2012 Lexus CT Hybrid 200h Premium

Base Price			$ 31,250
Price As Tested			$ 37,009
Engine Type			DOHC aluminum alloy Atkinson-cycle
				 inline 4-cylinder
Engine Size			1.8 liters / x cu. in.
Horsepower			98 @ 5200 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			105 @ 4000 rpm
Traction motor	type		650VAC permanent magnet
Maximum motor horsepower	80
Maximum system horsepower	134
Transmission			electronically-controlled CVT
Wheelbase / Length		102.4 in. / 170.1 in.
Curb Weight			3206 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		23.9
Fuel Capacity			11.9 gal.
Fuel Requirement		87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires				P215/45R17 87V Michelin Primacy mxm4
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc, ABS, ECB, BA,
				 and regenerative braking standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut /
				  independent double-wishbone
Drivetrain			transverse front engine/motor, 
				  front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		43 / 40 / 42
0 to 60 mph				9.8  sec

Premium Audio Package - includes:
  10-speaker Lexus Premium Audio system,
  in-dash 6-disc CD changer, auto-dimming
  electrochromic rearview mirror, Lexus
  Homelink universal transceiver		$ 1,100
F-Sport with NuLuxe Interior - includes:
  mesh upper and lower grille, larger rear
  spoiler, black headliner, aluminum sport
  pedals, perforated leather-trimmed steering
  wheel, leather-trimmed shift knob, F-Sport
  exterior fender badge, metal front door sills
  and scuff plates, metal-tone instrument
  panel trim, sport-tuned suspension		$ 1,000
Navigation System -- includes:
  HDD navigation system, backup monitor,
  Lexus Enform with Destination Assist and
  eDestination (includes 1-year trial
  subscriptions), Lexus Insider, Voice
  Command, NavTraffic, NavWeather, and
  Sports & Stocks (includes 90-day trial
  subscription)					$ 2,445
Accessory Package of cargo mat, cargo net,
  wheel locks, rear bumper applique		$   339
Destination charge				$    875