The growing surge of hybrid cars proves that Americans really do care about the environment. But there is a growing stigma attached to driving a hybrid. Call it eco-snobbery, an impression that many affix to hybrid drivers (remember South Park’s aptly named Prius spoof, the Pius?) because of their perceived superiority to the lowly, combustion-only drivers. Cars like the Prius and Insight are easily spotted, radiating all the excitement of melting butter, they stand out like the nerdy kid on the playground waiting for his daily wedgy. But now there is a hybrid that can save you from being instantly labeled an eco-“weenie,” a car that, on the surface, appears to be some sporty new five-door, perhaps a new Mazda or a stylish Renault knock-off. Well it’s neither. It’s the new Lexus CT200h and, for all its hip coolness, at its core resides the same powertrain and platform as the nerdy Prius. Shhhh, don’t tell anyone.
Because the CT200h employs the same 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle gasoline engine and electric generator as the Prius, we thought the driving experience would also be the same. But Lexus has taken the hybrid concept a step further, equipping the CT200h with a two-mode system, one for sporty driving and one for economical voyages. In Sport mode, the cool blue and white economy meter converts itself into a proper tachometer, complete with red back lighting. The switch to sport also increases the electric motor’s output, with the Power Control Unit (PCU) holding the engine’s rpm’s at a higher level, as well as altering the traction, stability, and electric power steering settings, to deliver a more sporting ride. The effect is nominal but appreciated. A more enticing game can be played by placing the drive mode controller into the EV setting, which allows the vehicle to run solely on electric power. Of course in this mode the battery packs will quickly drain but, with careful throttle control, one might be able to get all the way to work without ever burning a drop of gas.
Of course more power is going to mean less economy, which is why the CT200h is estimated to earn about 42 mpg city and 41 mpg highway. Considerably less than the Prius’ 51/48 figures, the CT200h is a bit quicker off the line and to the 60 mile per hour post, so there is room for forgiveness.
Aside from its hybrid credentials, the CT200h makes for a handsome little five door. It’s certainly more effervescent than the stodgy Audi A3, but not quite as timeless as the Volvo C30. Lexus’ L-Finesse styling language is clearly written all over the CT200h, from its angular front end to the cool (some hate it, I personally love it) wrap-around rear d-pillar glass and rear tail lamps. Inside, a refreshingly daring dash design looks cool and–except for the oddly angled radio placement–is highly functional. Seating is comfortable for the front passengers but the rear seat is snug, coming up short on both headroom and legroom. We also noticed a few oddities we chalked up to the CT200h’s entry-level status: there is no power adjustment for the passenger seat, not even a manual height adjustment lever, and the steering wheel audio controls lack a mute button, a feature common on far lesser vehicles. Leather seating is optional and probably unnecessary as Lexus’ synthetic NuLuxe fabric feels pretty comfy. Unfortunately, Lexus bundles such desirable features as heated seats and rain-sensing wipers in with the Leather Package, so if you want a warm tushy, you’ll end up doing so on supple, perforated leather seating surfaces.
As is, the base CT200h comes fairly well equipped, including: eight airbags, SmartAccess with push-button start, iPod control, Bluetooth, dual-zone automatic climate control, 17-inch alloy wheels, and power mirrors, door locks and windows. There are a few option packages of note including the Audio Moonroof and Navigation Package that adds premium audio, hard-drive navigation, a rear back up camera, and a power moonroof. Cars without navigation can still be equipped with the upgraded audio system and a rearview camera with rearview mirror display.
Pricing has not yet been released, but Lexus assures us the CT200h will slot below the IS 250, which leads us to conclude a low $30K starting point. Considering that a fully loaded Toyota Prius tops out in about the same neighborhood the Lexus seems the better choice because it brings with it not only the Lexus brand name, but the Lexus dealer experience, always one of the strongest reasons given by customers returning to purchase another Lexus.