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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

First Drive Photo Gallery: 2010 Toyota Prius

Toyota’s third generation Prius is on the road and we’ve got a full photo gallery of our first drive with the hybrid standard of the world.

First drive highlights

We recently traveled to sunny Orlando, Florida to check out and drive the new 2010 Toyota Prius. Now in its third generation, the 2010 model is 90% new compared to the outgoing 2009 model. Not just happy with extreme fuel economy, Toyota has jammed a ton of new technology into the new Prius.  Available options include; LED headlamps, solar panel sunroof, radar assisted cruise control, automatic parking, and a slick driver information center.

We drove a challenging 40-mile city loop in traffic and still was able to pull off 64.4mpg. Two other journalists achieved an outstanding 70+mpg!  Although this third generation is not the revolution that the second generation was, it’s more refined, more comfortable, and amazingly enough, more fuel efficient.

Stay tuned for our full First Drive Review!

Exclusive autoinsane.com First Drive Photo Gallery

Photographer: Zane Merva
Thanks to Eric Powers of HybridFest for being our photoshoot driver.