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Plastic, Fantastic $36,000 Lexus Hybrid Outdrives Prius: Cars

October 27, 2011

Oct. 27 (Bloomberg) -- It may be a Lexus, but you can’t call it luxurious.

Lexus’s five-door, hybrid hatchback, the CT 200h suffers from an identity crisis. No wonder, given its two distinct personalities.

When many people think of a hybrid they picture the Prius. The car nearly constitutes its own brand -- you hardly have to mention that it comes from the Toyota Motor Company. The Prius stands for an age of pragmatism where technology rules over passion.

Nobody would call the Prius a joyful ride; rather its appeal comes from beating the average fuel mileage of 51 city, 48 highway. Consider it an extremely well-executed appliance. (New Prius models are coming, including a bigger wagon version, the V, and an all-electric plug-in.)

Toyota also owns Lexus, whose customers tend to relish their luxury. Vehicles like the $113,000 LS Hybrid sedan focus on indulgence -- the thrill of driving is secondary to the feel of leather. It even has an automated system that helps parallel park the car.

Which makes the 200h all the more confounding. It falls well short of prestige, yet drives way better than a Prius. The 200h’s base price is $29,995, making it the least expensive Lexus. As tested, my Premium model, with options, was $36,725.

Yet I’ve seen Lego sets with less plastic inside, and I was underwhelmed by the busy exterior. While the designers eschewed the weird hump-back of the Prius, they substituted a number of bulges, creases and sloping angles, especially in the rear. Part boy racer, part European hatch. Not so pretty.

Street Wars

Gas mileage falls short of the Prius, but is still fairly fantastic at 43 city, 40 highway. Using the same technology as the Prius, the CT is a full hybrid and can drive up to a mile on battery power alone, without the gas engine switching on.

The 1.8-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine and electric drive motor have a combined 134 horsepower. Drivers can choose just how fully or thriftily to dole out that power, selecting drive modes of EV, eco, normal and sport. Since all the systems are handled electronically, throttle response is dictated by that selection.

The all-battery setting, or EV mode, mostly thwarted me. Even in city driving, I over-accelerated beyond its 28-mph threshold, which kicks the gasoline engine back on. Eco mode slows everything down, allowing only tepid response from the gas pedal.

I imagine this would work quite well around a sleepy island like Martha’s Vineyard off-season, but on the isle of Manhattan it means you’ll be overtaken and boxed out. It’s war out there.

Power Punch

Normal mode suffices. In sport mode, however, the electric motor lends an extra power punch off the line. Which is when the 200h suddenly becomes a bit more interesting -- and perplexing.

Sure, it takes almost 10 seconds to attain 60 mph, so this little hatch isn’t fast, but it pops off the line easily. It’s got a small footprint in every sense, making it easy to flit through traffic and swing into tight parking spaces.

The Mini Cooper rules supreme to many urban dwellers, but the fact that I averaged more than 40 mph, even in the densest traffic, gave the 200h an edge. Around town, it’s almost deceitfully sporty.

(If you want to be less sneaky, you can opt for the F Sport package, which doesn’t improve speed per se, but gets revised suspension tuning, dark alloy wheels and a bigger rear spoiler.)

Plastic Dash

Steering is good, with an appropriate sense of heft at highway speeds and lightness while pulling out of parking spots. The brakes are regenerative, meaning they recapture kinetic energy, but Lexus has made them feel confident and, well, normal.

The $1,100 premium audio package, with 10 speakers, made a pleasure of dawdling in traffic, and the leather seats are the most comfortable I’ve experienced since my all-time-favorite, the buckets in the BMW 7 Series.

Which is where things start unraveling. The interior is otherwise just not up to Lexus quality standards. Most of the dashboard and door siding are the hard plastic you’d find on any economy box -- making the lovely leather-wrapped steering wheel seem out of place.

The center console is overly busy, with a raft of buttons, dials and the small drive selector. The mouse-like controller that operates the navigation system looks like it was glued onto the console.

The navigation screen itself is small with fuzzy graphics. Systems on the latest Kia and Hyundai models are nicer -- and many of those cars are less expensive. Bringing us to the gas mileage. Hyundai has four models that are getting 40 mpg, only one of which is a hybrid.

The CT’s rear seats are tiny and the luggage space scant. I wouldn’t dare invite three friends on a long drive for fear of whining.

On Manhattan streets, though, I’d ditch the Mini Cooper for this ultimate urban runabout.

The 2011 Lexus CT 200h At a Glance

Engine: 1.8-liter four-cylinder and electric drive motor

with combined 134 horsepower.

Transmission: Continuously variable.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 9.8 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 43 city; 40 highway.

Price as tested: $36,725.

Best feature: Surprise! It’s sporty.

Worst feature: Short on Lexus luxury; big on plastic.

Target buyer: The urbanite who needs a runabout.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

--Editors: Daniel Billy, Jeremy Gerard.

To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com or follow on Twitter @JasonHarperSpin.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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