'11 Lexus CT 200h - First Drive

Being Green Doesn't Have To Be Bland After All.

Up until now, hybrids have been but a blip on my radar. It's easier to get excited by how many mpg they can achieve rather than horsepower and lateral g's. Hence, for a purist such as myself, I haven't had much interest or need for them. Recently, though, the massive wave of hybrids flooding the market has piqued my interest because sooner or later someone will start modifying them. When the opportunity arose to test drive the brand-new '11 Lexus CT 200h in Paris, I couldn't resist the urge to find out if my opinion could be swayed on these half-electric/half-gasoline automobiles.

What I instantly liked about the CT 200h is its hatchback demeanor and sporty styling. Unlike a Prius or Insight, whose exteriors are about as exciting as a white brick wall, the CT 200h presents much bolder design cues, especially up front with its slanted headlights and recessed duct-like foglight provisions. The lines carry well throughout the rest of the car and the bulging wheel arches and wide track make for a sharp, intimidating stance. I'm not much of a hatchback fan, but the CT 200h gets my nod as one of the best-looking on the market - from all angles, I might add.

The inside doesn't disappoint, either. As I have come to expect from Lexus, the interior is top notch with leather-wrapped seats that offer a good driving position and an LFA-inspired steering wheel, which is as nice to hold as it looks. The premium audio and navigation system also delivers great sound and easy-to-navigate menus through a mouse-like controller mounted on the center console. My only gripe inside is the oddly placed and sized gearshift lever that looks like its been plucked from a Prius. I'd prefer a more traditional-style lever.

Fire up the CT 200h and you won't hear much, nor will you see a tachometer on the gauge cluster - that is until you twist the console-mounted knob to Sport mode. All of a sudden, the earthy blue cluster lighting changes to a fiery red hue and reveals a tachometer in place of the Eco gauge to the left of the speedometer. The integration of these two gauges is surprisingly well done and provides the driver with a real sense of distinction between the modes.

We've all seen the Sport and Eco buttons before, but do they really provide enough differences to be considered worthwhile? In the CT 200h they do. Engage Sport mode and the steering tightens, throttle response crispens and the electric motor assist gets a healthy 150-volt increase (from 500 to 650 volts) supplying an extra 36 hp to the 1.8-liter, 98hp Atkinson-cycle 4-cylinder engine.

You may be thinking that power output is hardly anything to brag about, but when you factor in the 3,130-lb curb weight, the car has decent grunt to it. By no means would I consider it in sports car territory, but it's the peppiest of all amongst 4-cylinder hybrids, and it's more than adequate to get you around.

The CT 200h is the first hybrid I have driven where I don't feel like I have to floor the gas pedal every time I want the car to accelerate, and thanks to Lexus' Hybrid Drive, the experience between the electric assist and gas engine is seamless. In stop-and-go traffic, the gasoline engine turns off once the car comes to a stop and will fire back up at an instant when the vehicle begins to move, providing further gas mileage savings.

There's also an EV mode that when activated utilizes only the electric motors to drive the vehicle. Despite its very limited use and range (you can't go over 25 mph), it came in handy during rush hour, where speeds rarely exceeded 5 mph on the congested parking lot the French call their motorway.

Outside the city, I was able to subject the CT 200h to some spirited driving through the Parisian country roads. Lexus has done a great job tuning the chassis to provide excellent stability and agility through underbody braces and dampers. The ride feels sporty, but not to the point where you would consider it uncomfortable. It's right in the sweet spot between firm and plush, perfect for its demeanor. Because of its low-mounted battery and subsequently low center of gravity, it delivers good handling characteristics for a car of this nature. I wouldn't be pushing it to the limit of adhesion, but at a good pace it delivers a fun, driver-oriented experience.

Best of all, though, it does so while achieving 41 mpg on the highway and 42 mpg in the city. Considering this is the first hybrid that I've been really impressed with and could actually see myself buying for commuter use, I have to give a nod to Lexus for designing a hybrid that's fun to drive and still great for the environment. Now it's just a matter of getting some low-offset wheels and dropping the ride height to really set it off.

Specs & Details
'11 Lexus CT 200h
Engine
1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle 4-cylinder
Horsepower 98 at 5200 rpm (gas), +36 hp electric motor assist
Torque 105 at 4000 rpm
Transmission Electrically Controlled Continuously Variable Transmission
MSRP $28,900

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