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First Drive: 2011 Lexus CT 200h [Review]

by Mark Elias

Ever conservative Lexus' latest offering, the CT 200h, is anything but. Let's take one out for a spin in our First Drive.

Hybrid, luxury and fun-to-drive. Mutually exclusive terms, never before uttered in the same sentence unless your idea of excitement is watching VCR tapes of the Montreal Expos.

Lexus hopes it can reverse its hybrid fortunes with its most unconventional model ever, the 2011 Lexus CT 200h. It's a model that promises all of the above.

In many ways, Lexus has been down this road before with the HS 250h. Unfortunately for them, that car, which was actually closer to the Toyota Camry than the Prius, failed to set the eco-minded automotive purchasing world on fire. No thanks to a combination of awkward exterior looks and an interior that tried to set itself apart without adding anything good to the equation, the result was a car whose design was so polarizing that approximately six months worth of supply still sits on dealer lots nationwide.

Their fifth effort in the full-hybrid market, the CT 200h (for Compact Touring) has tossed out the former Buck Rogers in the 25th Century look in favor of a more traditional two-box hatchback design that from a distance looks as though it could be the next Mazda3. And that's not a bad thing.

By aiming the CT 200h at buyers in their 30s and 40s who probably don't currently own a Lexus, the automaker hopes it will bring in a generational shift for the brand.

Targeted design
Designed with European buyers in mind - and Americans whose taste might run a little more continetal - the CT 200h goes up against diesel five-door versions of the BMW 1-Series and Audi A3 "over there." But in the U.S. of A., the BMW is only offered with two doors and gasoline engines, so competition looks more like that aforementioned A3 TDI and, if you stretch down little, the Volkswagen Golf TDI and Mazda3. To simplify, the approximately $32,000 CT 200h doesn't really have any direct rivals in North America, so its push-the-limits design might just connect with buyers seeking something different.

With the design comes a new lower center of gravity look that takes advantage of aerodynamics and allows the car to cheat the wind (0.29 drag coefficient) wherever possible. Weight reduction was the order of the day in building the new hybrid, but body construction is much more rigid than in the past. Through the use of high strength steel and more bracing, the net result is a car that is both stronger and lighter at the same time. For those watching their weight, the CT 200h checks in with a positively svelte curb weight of 3,130 lbs.

Another innovation that the company is proud to trumpet is that the CT 200h is 80 percent recyclable at the end of its useful life. Meaning that its parts can be ground down, smelted, and reused for another go-round as another product - another Lexus, they sure do hope.

A lighter shade of green
Unlike the HS 250h that preceded it, the CT 200h is a five seater that actually feels better with two in the backseat rather than three. What is gone, though, is the mondo-bizarro feel given off by the HS's expanded center console. Instead what we find here is an interior that is as familiar as what is found in a traditional (read: non-hybrid) vehicle. In fact, "handsomely functional" comes to mind. Take that, wacky circa-2009 Lexus design.

Wood trim panels accent the brushed aluminum-look strips and facings throughout, while contrasting NuLuxe, a pleather-like material used on the seats and door panels, highlight the interior. Tree-killing vegans rejoice! For those who prefer going au naturale, real leather is also available.

The highlight of the interior is certainly the front seats. With a new lower center of gravity hip point, the seating just feels right. We had no problem getting comfortable with the power-adjustable driver seat and we actually loved the side bolstering and sporty seats. Finally, the flat slab seats from other hybrids are but a memory. With all the good mojo going on in the ergonomics areas, Lexus continued on a roll to design controls that naturally fall underhand as they are supposed to. Available options, in addition to the perforated leather seating surfaces, include a six-inch navigation system with joystick controls on the center console.

The cargo area, with the rear seats up, measures in at 14.3 cubic feet. Total cargo area dimensions with the rear seats down are comparable to other hatchbacks in the segment.

Whirring away
The CT 200h starts off where its Prius corporate cousin stops. Boasting a full-hybrid system, the CT 200h can run as an EV, a gas-powered car or a combination of the two.

The CT 200h's 1.8-liter Atkinson Cycle gas engine produces 98 horsepower and 105 lb-ft. of torque, but it mates up to an 80 pony electric motor and an additional power generator. Nickel metal hydride batteries come standard rather than the more advanced lithium ion units you might expect; they're coming later. Like most hybrids, a CVT comes as standard.

Through all this gas/electric hocus-pocus, the Lexus Hybrid Drive combines for 134 horsepower and a 0-60 mph time of 9.8 seconds. For those interested in track day excursions, the CT200h tops out at 113 mph. Mileage is slated at 43 around town a 40 on the highway for an average of 42 mpg combined. The battery warranty has also improved to 10-years 150,000 miles in zero emission states, and 8-years 100,000 miles in the other 48.

That 0-60 figure won't set enthusiasts' hearts aflame, but a quick turn of the steering wheel has us singing the gospel as best we can for this front-wheel-drive hybrid.

Good feedback comes through the speed-sensitive electric power steering system, which just begs drivers to throw the CT 200h at curves. Performance dampers and a tightly tuned suspension give the CT 200h a sporty and quick-responding feel; we were simply floored at its tossability and maneuverability on curvy roads.

Four drive modes, ranging from pure EV to throttle-restricting Eco to economy-minded Normal and, finally, to rev-holding Sport, let drivers tune the CT 200h to their current mood.

Sport mode, naturally, proved the biggest delight. It squeezed every bit of power out of the hybrid powertrain and seemed to work best with the CVT, giving us confidence-inspiring highway merging and passing power despite the relatively weak 0-60 sprint and low horsepower rating. As an added bonus, the gauge pack switches from the blue-highlighted eco-monitor mode to a red-laced tachometer-equipped gauge setup.

Leftlane's bottom line
The Lexus CT200h provided what we think has been sorely missing in a hybrid vehicle capable of hauling the family: A fun-to-drive quotient. With this one, we think they're on to something.

We're looking forward to a more extended evaluation once production CT 200hs hit dealer showrooms in March.

Lexus CT 200h base price, $32,000 (estimated).

Words and photos by Mark Elias.