Lexus has never turned my gears.
For the most part, Lexus cars will run nearly forever. The designs are clean but never memorable, and they are primarily bought by baby boomers — that defining group of people who brought us a summer of love, a decade of yuppies and an imminent Social Security crisis.
Lexus provided their flagship for 20 years, but during that time, we've seen the brand go from young, hip and successful to Buick (the old one). Really, Buick today feels younger and hipper than Lexus.
So it was a pleasant surprise to get into the 2011 Lexus CT 200h, a car that is much more exciting than the cobbled-together letters and numbers of its name suggests.
The CT 200h, a compact gas-electric hybrid, is designed with European sensibilities by a Japanese company and it will become wildly successful in America. Maybe.
It should: the CT 200h is a smart piece of transportation that provides great gas mileage, Lexus elegance and some on-road chops, as far as a hybrid goes.
The jury remains out on hybrids that don't carry a Prius badge. There is a growing band of gas-electric hybrids silently trolling through mall parking lots and on city streets like so many H.G. Wells invisible men, but none has captured the consumers' imagination or willingness to buy in bulk.
This Lexus could change that, because it's more than a hybrid — it's a good car.
Its performance certainly feels more sporty than hybridy. The powertrain includes two electric motors, a 1.8-liter VVT-i 4-cylinder engine and an electronically controlled, continuously variable transmission.
The car delivers 134 total horsepower, which is by no means a powerhouse, but a true performance hybrid really doesn't make much sense. Consumers want high gas mileage first and foremost when buying a hybrid.
The CT 200h delivers just that: 43 mpg in city driving and 40 mpg on the highway. Those numbers are downright diesel. (The compact VW Jetta hits 42 mpg on the highway.)The cool part about this little Lexus is the way engineers have made it feel fast. (Lexus boasts that this car can accelerate from 0 to 60 in 9.8 seconds, which is typically not a boastful number.)
Set the mood
The car sits low to the ground and the body is pretty stiff. Coupled with a programmable suspension system, the CT 200h has a certain racer feel when you muscle around corners and gun the gas. This car also includes a Lexus first: a lateral damping system that helps smooth out the ride even more.
There are two driving settings — dynamic and relaxing — that work with the four on-demand powertrain modes: EV, Eco, Normal and Sport.
The settings adjust how the car reacts to the driver's input with noticeable differences in each setting. EV mode means it will run on electric power (the CT 200h can drive up to 28 mph on just electricity), while the modes allow for incrementally more aggressive driving.
When you switch to the Sport mode, the instrument panel lights switch from blue to red.
The electric motor assists the gas engine on aggressive takeoffs and that instant torque is noticeable, though unheard. This car is extremely quiet, even when the gas engine is on, which sometimes I found difficult to determine by ear.
Lexus has adopted a number of features, such as an electric air conditioner, LED headlamps and a juice-sipping stereo, to draw less power from the nickel-hydride battery pack. The basic idea is to use gasoline to move the car, not crank the stereo, cool the cabin or run the steering wheel.
There is also some eco-cred throughout the cabin, something future Lexus owners will mention at every possible occasion.
"It's going almost as well as my bamboo charcoal-based resign diaphragm speakers in my Lexus."
"Did I mention that my new Lexus also uses bioplastic that is 30 percent plant-based polyethylene terephthalate."
"Only six times today."
But owners should be proud of this car. The hatchback design provides more than 14 cubic feet of space in the back, while still giving front and rear passengers lots of room, despite the compact design.
Plus, the exterior has great lines and sharp edges everywhere. The wheels are pushed out to the corners, but it still looks well balanced.
The face is aggressive, but not overly so like many compacts coming out. It's an adult's car with a sporty edge to it. The high belt line and tiny rear window, while not my favorite feature, look good on the CT 200h.
Inside, the cockpit is pure Lexus. The excellent leather seats are snug and keep you in place very well. The two-tiered instrument panel is modern and crisp and allows you to switch the hybrid gauge to a tachometer when the car is put in Sport Mode.
The 8-inch display at the top of the center stack is operated by the Remote Touch feature on the center console.
It takes a few minutes to adjust to this system, which operates similarly to a mouse pad, but once you get the hang of it, it's easy to use. (The screen annoyingly would not stay on the page I wanted, constantly switching back to the map if left alone too long.)
Bucking the boomers
There were little reminders that this car is still a hybrid, which, for the most part, I forgot much of the time. That's about as big of a compliment you can give to any hybrid. It just feels like a car, a really well-appointed car with all of the modern features you'd expect in it.
But all the while, its regenerative brakes are pushing energy back into the battery pack, the two electric motors are running, nudging the car along its away. Everything is seamless and operates in the background.
Part of the success of the Prius is how the driving experience reminds you every day that you're in a hybrid. It embraces its unique place in the car market while most hybrids try to blend in to the scenery.
The CT 200h stands out for a much different reason. It's a hybrid that delivers good fuel economy, has a starting price under $30,000 and it's still fun to drive. Baby boomers may not like it, and that might be a good thing. In a generation, they'll be dead.
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Exterior: Excellent. Compact and elegant, the CT 200h is modern and sleek but still possesses a utilitarian look.
Interior: Excellent. Extremely comfortable with lots of driver-friendly features. It’s compact, but still has plenty of room.
Performance: Good. Gas-electric transition is seamless and rides great.
Pros: Well-priced with good road manners and a hatch in the back.
Cons: People might confuse you with other Lexus owners.
**** Excellent *** Good ** Fair * Poor