A Hybrid Balancing Act

A Victory & Reseda review of the 2011 Lexus CT 200h

For the past ten years, I’ve struggled with the subject of hybrid automobiles.

It started when I drove my first Toyota Prius ten years ago at a Farmer’s Market on Madison's Capitol Square. What surprised me about that Prius was how it drove like a normal small sedan, despite a few sonic differences. There was some initial resistance based on some quirkiness in the styling inside and out along with the concern about battery life and overall reliability of the system.

My summation at the time was that the combination of petrol and electric motors was a fantastic idea, if it meant to simply cut down emissions and optimize fuel economy. However, I questioned whether the general public was ready to pay a premium over regular automobiles for the sake of being "green."

Since then, I tried very hard to embrace this alternative method in vehicle propulsion. After driving a few of these samples as part of a local car-sharing program, I concluded that while the second generation Prius improved in various ways, it was quite dull to drive. Furthermore, I question whether being "green" meant sacrificing true automotive engagement from this five-door neo-futuristic (now iconic) appliance.

Being blatantly honest does have its price. Over the course of a decade, I had huge arguments over my stance on the Prius that friendships were actually put on the line. I needed to find alternatives.

After a series of turns in subsequent hybrids, namely the third generation Prius, the Honda Insight and the Ford Fusion Hybrid, my internal conflict worsened. I ultimately asked myself if there was a hybrid automobile out there that drove the way I liked.

Something with grip and traction. Something that I would take it into the corners and make it beg for mercy. Something I would not feel guilty about driving, as I gobbled up the miles towards destinations unknown. Something that was actually engaging, but spewed almost no carbon in the air and sipped fuel like it was a fine wine.

2011 Lexus CT 200h 5

That was when a Lexus CT 200h showed up at my doorstep.

Toyota's luxury brand has been playing the hybrid game for quite some time. Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive, branded as the Lexus Hybrid Drive at the marble-lined dealerships, had been tacked onto some of the better petrol engines offered to its consumers. The RX crossover, the GS sports sedan and the LS flagship benefitted from the Lexus Hybrid Drive as an additional offering these models. Then, Lexus decided it was time to make an exclusive hybrid vehicle for its customers. The HS took the Camry Hybrid's driveline, dropped it into the Japanese market's Toyota Sai, and rebranded it with the luminous, blue-tinted "L." However, some consumers balked at it for being an overpriced, overstuffed Prius – attracting only a couple of hundred customers each month according to the latest sales figures from September of 2011.

Enter the CT. The smallest car ever made for Lexus.

Originally designed for the European market as a premium urban hatchback, the CT was created to combine proper road manners with the driveline from the third generation Prius. The result was a Lexus for upscale urbanistas with a sustainable bent. It also gave us enthusiasts a sporty hatchback with honest green cred.

I wanted to find whether the CT achieved this delicate balance between sustainability and enthusiast motoring. Furthermore, I wanted to know whether this CT would make me love the hybrid once and for all.

2011 Lexus CT 200h 4

From looking at the CT, one can decipher some key elements of Lexus' future design language inside and out. You may have noticed how the front end appeared to be a precursor to the upcoming GS sports sedan, as shown at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance in August. Other Lexus cues were melded into this squat, sporty hatchback, which may seem like a cross between a Toyota Matrix, a MINI Clubman and an IS-F. Overall, it was intriguing and somewhat polarizing. Frankly, I found the CT quite fun to look at.

What makes it so fun from the outside? It is in the details on this CT. The side mirrors remind you of the $375,000 LFA by the way it's shaped for airflow management. Even more compelling were some fantastic curves and angles found around the skin, especially the shape of the C pillar and the wraparound glass enveloping the hatch.

Perhaps the most polarizing part of the CT was the color. The Daybreak Yellow Mica on this Premium example elicited split opinions from everyone that had witnessed it. They either loved the lime-ish, yellow-ish finish or hated it. It is a youthful color that may fit the CT's potential clientele, but most enthusiasts would rather abhor it. It also brought up the debate over the return to rich and deep pastel colors – raspberries, limes and the sort – to vehicles aimed at younger buyers. That would require an entire article altogether…

Interestingly enough, when I tried to photograph this color, it came out gold instead of the lime-ish, yellow-ish finish. Actually, I’d prefer the gold than this color. If one does not like this color, the CT is also available in normal hues.

2011 Lexus CT 200h 14

Step inside the cabin, and you are treated to a mix of luxury, sport and technology. There's simply a lot going on in front of the driver that one would appreciate the soft, supportive leather seats after figuring out all of the functions of the CT. These are perhaps one of the best seats I've experienced as a driver in a long time. Never had a seat ever loved me back – that speaks volumes considering what I've driven over the same course of time.

Room can be achieved up front for anyone with a pretty wide front door. Rear room can be a challenge for tall and thick passengers where legroom is the biggest complaint above anything else. The smallish rear doors do not help matters at all.

Cargo space is achieved through an expandable and useful space. The rear seats fold absolutely flat which will help with larger items, given they are not taller than the headliner. Even with the rear seats up, there's plenty of space for a week's road trip for two people.

The instrument panel is a study in the learning curve. Once you have everything set up, it's a great place to get the job done. Getting to that point can be challenging for anyone not familiar with the level of tech on the CT. For example, the instrumentation may look normal, with the exception of the interchangeable left dial. When you turn the Drive Mode Select dial to Eco, the left dial is a monitor ranging from Power (i.e. the petrol engine in use) to Charge (regenerating the batteries). Not to mention it is all lit up in blue. Flip the Drive Mode Select to Sport and that power monitor becomes a tachometer with everything lit in red.

Why does all of this happen? I'll explain why in a few more paragraphs…

Regardless of what color your instrumentation is lit, below the fuel gauge is another switchable screen. The most important screen is a familiar one to Prius owners – the energy monitor. This is the screen that tracks where the power is coming from – either the petrol engine or the electric motor. You can also see the regeneration of the battery, as well as the pertaining fuel economy screens.

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In one of the packages for the Premium model, you get a navigation screen that flips up from the top of fascia. It is just a part of an interactive screen that switches to a reversing camera, menus for audio, Bluetooth and other Lexus Enform functions. You also get XM NavTraffic and NavWeather when you get into the Premium model.

Controlling the screen comes from a computer mouse-like device permanently installed where gear selector is normally located. The Remote Touch allows you to switch between screens just like your desktop computer. There are also buttons to click between the navigation screen and the main menu.

If you are also familiar with the Prius, then you will recognize the toggle-like gear selector. The only difference is the nice, shiny chrome handle that makes switching to reverse or drive easier to do than in the larger Toyota. Park is engaged with a button. You also start the car with another button. You get used to these buttons because they’re placed in a sporty matter that reminds one of another small premium machine from another continent.

The one feature I found handy was the throwback phone holder just to the side of the Remote Touch controller. Back in the 1980s, you had your cellular phone on a cradle tacked to your center console. Today's smart phones are indeed an extension of what we do, so they created a phone holder that swivels as well as being easily connectible to the USB and auxiliary ports nearby.

The audio system and climate control work well within the confines of this technologically inclined cabin. It may not be a Mark Levinson system found on other Lexus models, but it sounds extraordinarily wonderful.

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Under the hood, is a familiar driveline: The 1.8litre four-cylinder internal combustion engine connected to an electric motor and a continuously variable transmission. In the Prius, it does a decent job. In the CT, the lower stance, wider track and gives this combination of 134HP and pure electric torque a fighting chance anywhere it goes.

The drivetrain truly comes into play when you work the Drive Mode Select knob. In Eco mode, the power relies on the electric motor with the petrol engine kicking in when it's needed – on the onset. If you flip it over to Sport mode, the power is weighted towards the petrol engine with little assistance from the electric motor. In Sport, the 1.8litre engine truly comes into life and gives the CT some exciting moments on the road. One push of the knob neutralizes the system in Normal mode. It provided a more flexible power band between the two motors.

If you just want to drive in the city – and at slow speeds – there's the EV button near the Drive Mode Select knob. It basically runs the electric motor only up to around school zone speed limits. EV mode is great in the city where you don’t need to race through the neighborhood for a quart of milk from the corner store.

The result of using these modes are what you'd expect from a hybrid. Optimal fuel economy is achieved in Eco mode, while you lose that precious economy in Sport. It depends on how you drive in any of the modes, really. In my case, I kept it in Eco and made sure my throttle response was restrained than usual. If I stuck it on Sport, as I would prefer for my own driving, then I would complain about the fuel economy not being as good as advertised. Either way, I found the CT to be actually fun for a hybrid.

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Why is this hybrid fun? Because it had the one thing I want in one: True driving dynamics. It's not boring like the garden-variety green machines out in the marketplace. This kitten had claws.

The CT’s claws are shod with a set of Michelins that balanced efficiency with grip. They’re tacked onto a nice set of 17-inch alloy rims. The combination helped maintain a solid, but firm ride in the CT, despite the oft resistance on not so great road surfaces.

Hybrids need not be compromised when it comes to cornering and handling. For the most part, they are. The CT changes that paradigm for good. Being a small hatchback with a low center of gravity, the CT managed corners very competently. There was no resistance from the tires or the car itself when pushed through a cloverleaf or a winding road. The steering helps tremendously. For an electronic system, the steering response was actually was sharp. It had a tight turning radius that will get you out of trouble better than most hybrids in the market.

As for stopping power, I'm afraid this is not a strong point. In most Lexus models, you have solid and strong brake response. You’d expect it to be true on sporty hatchbacks. Not so in the CT. It does stop OK, but I would have preferred a sharper brake response even with the regenerative system used to recharge the battery. To sell a sports hatch, even with green cred, the foot has to be assured of a solid stop every time – both in normal and panic situations.

Where the CT shines above all is attaining the ultimate result for a hybrid – fuel economy. I was extremely impressed that this lime-ish, yellow-ish, gold-ish kitten with claws got an average of 43.9MPG. That's very impressive – and much better than I expected! This is not only a V&R (and its former nomenclature) record – it's a personal record.

The drawback on hybrids has been the premium charged for admission. The CT starts at under $30,000. The Premium model is a few hundred dollars more. The fully loaded example tested here scaled up to just over $38,200. That’s a huge chunk of change for a compact hybrid hatchback.

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Since the impetus for Lexus was to create a sporty hatchback with green credibility, I took the CT to the final Cars and Coffee of the year out in Chanhassen, Minnesota. By bringing it to the lion's den of automotive enthusiasts, I wanted to see whether the CT could stand along with the others on display at this monthly event. There was some response to the hatchback. Most of the enthusiasts knew what it was, and responded with a turned-up nose. Some of the Japanese car enthusiasts were curious about it. They thought it was cool that you can plunk the Prius driveline into a body worth standing next to a Subaru Impreza WRX STi (or the hooned-out Scion tC it actually sat next to). For the most part, the enthusiast cred was not fully attained.

Where the CT shone was in the eyes of the curious. In the wild, it turned heads. It provoked curious glances. These reactions were plentiful considering that the CT is still considered a rarity on the road. So far, 8,800 units were already spoken for in 2011. One dealer I spoke to said they sold out their allotment and has a waiting list for them. This is indeed a good sign that the CT is being accepted as both sports compact and a sustainable one, too.

However, the question remains whether this will be the hybrid that will change people's minds? Compared to the more popular green vehicles in the marketplace, the C'’s formula of creating a premium sporty hatch with a hybrid driveline would only attract a niche clientele.

V&R Lexus CT 200h gone Apple Picking

The Lexus CT 200h is the proverbial Catch-22 for the enthusiast with a sustainable lifestyle. However, I would have no qualms driving a hybrid with true driving dynamics. This CT was worth every mile of petrol sipped through its kitten-like veins.

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.

All photos by Randy Stern

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