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Driven: Toyota Prius c

Let’s face it, if you buy a Ferrari you can’t complain that its only gets 5 mpg while you accelerate to 100 mph in a matter of seconds. Conversely, if you buy a Prius you can’t complain that it’s slow while getting 60 mpg. If you buy a Prius and complain that it isn’t fast than you are what we like to call someone who wants their cake and to eat it too. No, you’ll never bring home a new 50 inch plasma TV inside it (unless you strap it to the top).  Yes, you will get insanely good gas mileage and parallel parking  will be a breeze.

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Lexus CT200h First Drive: Sporty and fuel efficient in a competitive niche

Like every automaker today, Lexus sees the important small-car market as a great place to grow business.  Enter the CT200h; a four-door, fuel efficient hybrid compact that the company hopes will draw new customers to the brand by being the cheapest Lexus yet. How does it stack up? We drove one to find out.

The smallest & most affordable Lexus yet

When it goes on sale next March, the CT200h will be the cheapest, smallest, and most fuel efficient vehicle in the Lexus lineup. It will also be a hybrid; based largely on the third-generation Toyota Prius.  However, looking at the CT you’d never know. Unlike it’s poor selling bigger sibling the HS250h, the CT200h has almost no resemblance of being a hybrid.  Aerodynamic wedges and angles have been traded in for soft curves, a low/wide stance, and an upscale look.

Emphasis has been placed that the CT is a drivers car.  Lexus’s aim is to have  “fun and luxury hybrid together in the same sentence.”   It’s a different approach for Lexus but one that’s badly needed to tap into competitive buyers.  It’s those cross shopping buyers that Lexus is trying to go after.  The brand expects that 75% of CT200h owners will be first time Lexus buyers.

2011 Lexus CT200h First Drive - Photo: Zane Merva/AutoInsane.com

A small market of opportunity

The CT200h will be up against some stiff competition in the niche entry-luxury market.  This is the same segment that the BMW 1-Series, Audi A3, and Volvo C30 are currently fighting it out in.  In Lexus’s favor, none of the competitors are hybrids. Aside from going up against BMW and Audi, the entire segment only moves 1,500 cars each month.  Interestingly, Lexus believes they can grow the segment  70%  by selling nearly 1,000 CT200h a month.

Whether Lexus can sell that many cars against the likes of the 1-Series is dubious. Both the A3 and the BMW 128 start in the high $20,000 price range with the C30 priced at $24,600. Lexus has yet to release any pricing on the CT but told us to expect “close to $30,000”.  If the CT200h starts anywhere above $29,450, it will be the most expensive vehicle in this class. With only 138-horsepower between the gas and electric motor,the CT is also set to be the least powerful. The base A3, 128, and C30 all come with 200, 230, and 227-horsepower respectively.

The CT200h does have one very big advantage above the rest in this segment; fuel economy. While BMW, Audi, and Volvo are all quicker, the CT200h gets nearly double the fuel economy. That’s right, while the segment average is a respectable 20-25mpg, the CT averages a combined rating of 42mpg. We even coaxed out 50mpg during our city testing. Very impressive.

So, while the CT200h has a massive fuel economy advantage, it falls short in other areas of this segment.  With that said, it’s highly doubtful that potential buyers will be left sitting on the fence to decide between a hybrid Lexus or gas powered BMW.  Our guess is that buyers of the CT will be specifically looking for a hybrid and wouldn’t have accepted anything else.

2011 Lexus CT200h First Drive - Photo: Mark Elias/Lexus

Improving on the Prius

The CT will only be available with a hybrid powertrain extremely similar to the one found on the newest Toyota Prius. The nickel-metal hydride battery has been reduced in size but not output.  The gas-engine is the same 98-horsepower unit found in the Prius.  Also of difference is the voltage control system.  While the Prius’s battery power is continually stepped up to 650-volts, the CT200h runs at a more tame 500-volts in eco and normal mode. Only in sport mode (or full throttle) is the battery output stepped to 650-volts to provide quicker acceleration.  Why would Lexus do this? For one, it’s smoother.  It also allows the CT to run longer on battery power.  By drawing only 500-volts on a regular basis, the CT’s electric motors draw down its battery pack slower.

The CT has four driving modes. EV for slow speed electric only propulsion, eco for better fuel economy, normal for linear throttle feel, and sport for aggressive driving.  Eco, normal, and sport driving modes all come with customized throttle, suspension, and steering wheel calibrations.  Sport mode also activates a red instrument panel color and replaces the battery charging meter for a tachometer.

On the road we found ourselves utterly surprised with the CT200h. The car maintains trademark comfort that you’d expect out of a Lexus but runs with a distinct crispness to the suspension tuning we were not expecting. Like a skateboard, the CT happily curves and cuts through traffic and sharp turns. On the highway we found the car to be smooth, relaxed, and comfortable.

In all, we had a chance to drive the CT200h nearly 100 miles over flat southern Florida terrain and it intrigued us. We can’t wait to get more time behind the wheel for a full report.

2011 Lexus CT200h First Drive - Photo: Zane Merva/AutoInsane.com

Interesting Facts

  • Combined fuel economy is rated at 42mpg
  • Lexus expects 75% of all CT200h buyers will be new to the Lexus brand
  • The battery pack has an expected life of 15-years
  • NuLux seating surfaces are 50% lighter than leather
  • Most of the CT200h’s interior is recyclable and includes plastic recycling numbers to aid in disposal
  • Uses the same gas engine as the Prius
  • Lexus expects CT200h buyers will be mostly male between  30-40 years old and with household income over $100k/year
  • Select sport mode and the CT’s gauge cluster lighting turns from blue to red and the charging indicator turns into a tachometer

Conclusion

All the comfort you’d want from a Lexus combined with the technology from a Prius wrapped in a package more sporty than you’d expect.

Strengths

  • Impressive fuel economy; we achieved 50mpg in suburban Florida
  • Sporty suspension tuning gives a fun ride without taking away comfort
  • Cheapest Lexus yet (approximately $30k)
  • Hybrid system has been improved over Prius

Weaknesses

  • Not as quick or powerful as other competitors in this niche
  • NuLux simulated leather still looks and feels like simulated leather
  • Battery ventilation system produces audible fan noise from second row seats
  • Interior dash accent piece (which adds a lot of  style) is a extra cost option

Lexus CT200h First Drive Gallery

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid – the best executed hybrid yet?

Hybrids have seemingly been on the cusp of mainstream fame for years now as the US consumer searches for ways to reduce fuel consumption. But, could it be that the car of the future is actually already on sale today?

Specifications as-tested

Model: 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid
Engine: Duratec 2.5L I-4 Gas Engine [156-horsepower] & Permanent magnet AC synchronous electric motor [106-horsepower/275V]
EPA Fuel Economy: 41mpg City, 39mpg combined, 36mpg highway
Observed Fuel Economy: 38.44mpg [SmartGauge reported as 40.7mpg]
Total Miles Driven: 542 miles
Base MSRP: $27,270
As driven MSRP: $31,940 (includes $1,270 in “rapid spec” savings)
Available Government Tax Credit: $850 until April 1st, 2010
Transmission: Electronically Controlled Continuously Variable Transmission (eCVT)
Equipped Options & Features: Rear View Backup Camera, BLIS (Blind Spot System), Moonroof, Sony Premium Sound System, Leather/Heated Seats, Navigation System, SYNC

Driving Dynamics & Performance

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid

Generally, hybrids are not the most exciting vehicles to drive.  Not true with the Ford Fusion. It’s the first hybrid we’ve tested that doesn’t feel somewhat lifeless and numb at all the control points.  Typically, over-boosted steering and a mushy brake are just par for the hybrid course. Not so for the Fusion, which drives much more like its non-hybrid counterpart than one might expect. On the road, if not for the CVT transmission and EV mode, it would be difficult to tell you were not driving a fully gas dependent Fusion.

Acceleration is also non-hybrid like. Lay into the throttle and you’re met with a decent push of grunt from the internal combustion engine (ICE) and electric motor combination.  Although it’s hard on the conscious to mash the accelerator in a car meant to save fuel, you won’t be disappointed if you have to.

But we digress, the reason you would buy a hybrid is for fuel economy and the Fusion Hybrid does a pretty damn good job at that.  On the backwoods roads of New Hampshire we traverse daily, our Fusion averaged a cool 38.4mpg. That’s almost exactly on par with the EPA’s combined driving average of 39mpg and 2mpg lower than what the SmartGauge system indicated.  More impressively, during our stint we could only muster through a half tank of gas, despite traveling 378 miles during fuel economy testing (we traveled 542 miles in the Fusion Hybrid total).

Like most other hybrid vehicles, the Fusion can run under either full electric power or a combination of electric and gasoline engine power. The real difference is how the Fusion acts under electric only power versus the competition. The Toyota Camry Hybrid, just for example, is tuned for low end torque, making moving off from a start under electric power a snap. The caveat is that EV mode cuts out at 40mph and it’s hard to maintain speed.  The Fusion Hybrid is a little different as it’s almost impossible to get underway without starting the internal combustion engine. Once at speed however, the Fusion enters and stays planted in EV mode with ease all the way up to 48mph.  That small 8mph difference may not seem like much until you consider how many roads in the US are posted at 45mph- a speed at which the Camry Hybrid’s gas engine would be running and the Fusion Hybrid’s engine would not.

Design Execution, Appearance, Fit & Finish

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid

Similar to how the Fusion Hybrid drives, it’s styling doesn’t exactly scream “hybrid vehicle” either. That’s a good thing, the Fusion is already a stylish automobile. On the outside the only hint of being a hybrid is the specialized hybrid badges and unique wheels.

We have to note the great sounding doors. I know, you’re asking yourself why we’d mention the doors. It’s just that they shut with a mechanically precise sound that you rarely hear, even on more upscale vehicles.

On the inside, you’ll find a plush environment. Gaps are kept to a minimum, although we’re still not satisfied with the quality of the plastics on the lower and upper consoles, door trim, and surrounding the emergency brake. With that said, for this price and the amount of technology included, you’re going to have to give a little.

Worthy of noting, Ford decided not to include LED rear tail-lamps on the Fusion Hybrid. We find it odd considering the reduced energy use that LEDs provide over typical incandescent bulbs. Hopefully this will be an upgrade in model years to come.

Audio, Electronics, & Technology

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid: SmartGauge

This is perhaps the ringer category for the Fusion Hybrid. With the SmartGauge system and SYNC, Ford has a decisive edge on any competitor in this segment. When you factor in the extra large 8-inch navigation system screen, Sirius Travel Link, a Sony Sound System, rear backup camera, stability and traction control, and automatic climate control- the Fusion Hybrid stands supreme.

The highlight of the Fusion Hybrid is Ford’s SmartGauge system, an extremely innovative dual LCD paneled gauge cluster (as seen above).  Configurable to display information in one of four formats, this car wouldn’t be the same without it. It shows you exactly how much juice you can give the throttle before kicking on the gas engine or conversely, how much you need to let off the throttle before EV mode takes over.  SmartGauge makes driving a hybrid for maximum fuel economy less of a game of skill and more a walk in the park. Our only concern is how much the system will cost to fix years down the road when something goes bad.

Read more about the Smart Gauge system

Comfort & Ergonomics

The interior of the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid

Another huge surprise was how comfortable we were in the Fusion. The 8-way power driver seat gave firm support without feeling hard and supported my sensitive back after hours behind the wheel.

We also appreciated Ford trusting us to adjust the SmartGauge system while in motion. Sometimes automakers lock out the settings and configuration menus on navigation systems and driver information systems at speed. It’s an annoying trend. Ford, showing respect for the driver, has opted to allow access to the SmartGauge configuration menu while on the road. Ford, thank you.

Other creature comforts to note include excellent heated seats (they get nice and hot!), Sirius Travel Link, Sirius radio, and an excellent functioning navigation system.

The rear trunk is slightly smaller than in a “regular” Fusion, as Ford packs the batteries between the trunk space and the rear seat-backs, but you still have plenty of room for larger luggage.

Final thoughts

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid

It’s not often we are sad to see a hybrid leaving our office. While we love saving gas, the driving experience that comes along with most of these eco-machines left much to be desired – until now. The 2010 Fusion Hybrid thoroughly impressed and left us with the refreshing feeling that the bar for these types of machines had been raised and raised far. This is the new flagship of FoMoCo.

Conclusion

Perhaps the most refined and best executed hybrid to date.

Strengths

  • The only hybrid that can operate in EV mode over 45mph
  • SmartGauge is a  revolutionary step in presenting information to the driver
  • All the benefits of a hybrid in a “regular” car package

Weaknesses

  • Dash and door coverings are too hard and plastic-like in spots
  • SYNC voice commands are tedious to use, navigation system adds obnoxious layers to otherwise simple actions
  • Priced higher than a Toyota Prius

Check out our 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid photo gallery

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid Road Test Photo Gallery

Road Test Gallery: 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid

Hybrids have seemingly been on the cusp of mainstream fame for years now as the US consumer searches for ways to reduce fuel consumption. But, could it be that the car of the future is actually already on sale today? Check out our full road test later today.

Specifications as-tested

Model: 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid
Engine: Duratec 2.5L I-4 Gas Engine [156-horsepower] & Permanent magnet AC synchronous electric motor [106-horsepower/275V]
Base MSRP: $27,270
As driven MSRP: $31,940 (includes $1,270 in “rapid spec” savings)
Available Government Tax Credit: $850 until April 1st, 2010
Transmission: Electronically Controlled Continuously Variable Transmission (eCVT)
Equipped Options & Features: Rear View Backup Camera, BLIS (Blind Spot System), Moonroof, Sony Premium Sound System, Leather/Heated Seats, Navigation System, SYNC

Road Test: 2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid

If there was ever a vehicle that portrayed what may be the ultimate paradox it may be the 2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid.

And, yeah, that thang’s got a Hemi, too.

Take one full-size SUV that has three rows of seating, can tow up to 6,000 pounds, boasts 385 horsepower from a 5.7-liter V-8 Hemi engine and toss in a two-mode hybrid setup to boost in-town gas mileage and provide 20/22 EPA estimates from the 27-gallon gas tank and you’ve got the Durango Hybrid. During the past week, the trip computer registered 20.4 miles per gallon overall during more than 600 miles of mixed driving.
That figure, of the estimates guessed by many who offered sympathy at the size of the land-locked Leviathan on wheels, surprised everyone at its relative miserly way.

2009 Dodge Durango with highlighted Two-Mode Hybrid System

Utilizing a two-mode hybrid setup, the big Durango takes advantage of a fuel-saving Multi-Displacement System (MDS) technology. Total output, when combined with the advanced two-mode hybrid system, is 400 horsepower and 380 lb.-ft. of torque – the most powerful hybrid SUVs. This mechanical magic results, according to Chrysler, at a 25 percent increase in city mileage and 40 percent overall.

The hybrid system, which was developed with General Motors, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, delivers a “two-mode” full hybrid system by integrating proven automatic-transmission technology with a patented hybrid-electric drive system.

The two modes in the hybrid system result from low- and high-speed electric continuously variable transmission (ECVT) modes. During the two ECVT modes, the system uses electric motors for acceleration, improving fuel economy, or for regenerative braking to utilize energy that would normally be lost during braking or deceleration. The energy is stored in a 300-volt battery pack for later use. The system’s two modes are optimized for city and highway driving. The setup includes four fixed gear ratios for “efficiency” and power-handling capabilities.

The first mode is designed for low speeds and light loads. In this mode, the vehicle can operate in three ways: electric power only, engine power only, or any combination of engine and electric power.

In city use, up to about 20 mph, Durango runs off battery power, sounding like an oversized golf cart until the Hemi kicks in.
The second mode is used primarily at highway speeds. The second mode provides full power from the HEMI when needed, such as passing, pulling a trailer or climbing a steep grade. Durango’s 380 lb.-ft. of torque is more than enough for low-end grunt pulling.

A controller determines when to use the first or second mode and shifts the torque as needed.

A 300-volt battery pack powers the system without crabbing interior room – which is cavernous to say the least. A rectifier located under the hood converts AC to DC in order to power conventional 12-volt accessories, including interior lighting, climate control and the audio system.
The MDS system shifts the engine from using all eight cylinders to four, depending upon the power required. A light green hard-to-see and read dash light displays a needle showing when the economy is at its best while cruising.

2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid

Though Chrysler, aka Dodge, claims the MDS shifts back and forth seamlessly, and a CVT transmission is supposed to provide seamless shifting up and down the band range I found otherwise.

MDS did not work behind the scenes without interfering with the ride, noise or being noticeable. Neither did the CVT. This was surprising because other vehicles with similar setups rode and drove as advertised. Instead, I found that slower traffic along Route 33 and through Market Square caused Durango to constantly hunt and search for the right speed and setting. Disengaging or changing it up was noticeable and disappointing.

Despite its largess – which is another disappointing factor since it was originally introduced in 1998 as the perfect midsized SUV – measuring nearly 18 feet long and weighing 5,553 pounds empty, Durango was rather light on its feet, aided by power rack-and-pinion steering. Of course, turning or parking in any parking area will be a challenge, but is aided by the rearview camera in the tailgate.

To support a vehicle of this size one needs 18-inch standard tires and a stiff suspension for its fulltime 4×4 ability. Thus, the independent front suspension and rear coil springs with a solid rear axle provided a torsionally stiff and somewhat jarring ride when it came to rough road and railroad tracks. Much more vibration was transmitted into the cab that I had expected and found acceptable given today’s standards.

2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid

There’s little to want in the way of options in Durango and it comes loaded with a price tag as big as its profile: $44,540 with $800 additional for delivery. Toss in a tow package, power sunroof and a rear seat video package and the sticker soared to $48,410 for a vehicle that might have been a technical marvel 3 or 4 years ago but is viewed with disdain today.

For someone with a large speedboat, horse trailer or family that skies and needs the 102.4 cu. ft. provided with the rear seats folded down, (68.4 c.f with the seats up) it’s a workhorse.

But for the company trying to find its way back to what made it what it was when the Bobs – Eaton and Lutz – ran it, an oversized Durango and a hybrid edition Hemi are the wrong mixes at the wrong time.

2009 Dodge Durango Specifications As Tested

Engine: 5.7-liter HEMI® Hybrid, OHV, V-8 with Multi-displacement System (MDS)
Power Output: 345 hp @ 5300 rpm
Torque: 380 lb.-ft. @ 4200 rpm
Electric Motor Output: 87 hp
Torque: 235 lb.-ft.
Type: 2 AC synchronous electric motors
Voltage: 300 V max
Battery Power Output: 40 hp
Voltage: 300 V
Type: Sealed Nickel-metal hydride
Total Power Output: 385 hp
Emission Control: Dual three-way catalytic converters, heated oxygen sensors, electronic EGR and internal engine features
MILEAGE: 19/20 mpg (city/hwy)
Transmission: Two-mode Hybrid
Wheelbase: 119.2″
Length: 202.1″
Width: 76.0″
Height: 73.6″
Base Price: $44,540
Delivery: $800
Options: $3,070
As tested: $48,410

2009 Dodge Durango Photo Gallery