Denny Rehberg is the finest congressman from the state of Montana. Even his fiercest opponents and strongest detractors would agree with that statement.
Denny Rehberg is also Montana’s only congressman.
Lexus is hoping that similar logic will win over buyers to the CT 200h, the world’s first and only entry-luxury segment sport hybrid hatchback. Unfortunately, buyers don’t shop by class — they cross-shop cars with similar attributes. That means the baby Lex is pitted squarely against the likes of the Audi A3 TDI and VW Golf TDI. As a hybrid, the CT can never escape the shadow of Toyota’s own Prius.
The CT 200h, introduced as a 2011 model, is a hybrid in more ways than one. It’s not cheap, but it’s not as expensive as other Lexuses in the lineup. It doesn’t have record-breaking fuel economy, but it manages in the low 40s. And it sure isn’t fast, but it offers a relatively spirited driving experience compared with other battery-powered cars. The “h” might stand for hybrid, but the “C” stands for compromise.
I spent a week with the CT 200h and found it an ideal commuter, delivering an average of 41.5 mpg in a mix of highway, city and stop-and-go traffic. Though the powertrain is almost the same as the Toyota Prius, Lexus stiffened the suspension and gave the CT slightly weightier steering. It helps the CT feel more firmly planted on the pavement than a lollygagging Prius, but it’s certainly not a sports car.
The CT offers three settings: Sport, Eco and Normal. I ignored Normal, swapping between Sport for around-town driving and Eco for traffic jams. Forget to turn the knob, however, and merging in Eco becomes an agonizingly slow, white-knuckle exercise in waking the laziest throttle I’ve ever encountered.
Like the Prius, acceleration can be entertaining at low speeds when the electric motor is helping. Mash the pedal on the highway, though, and you’ll hear just the kind of groan you’d expect from a 98 hp gas engine mated to a CVT. Regenerative brake action is somewhat nonlinear, grippy and accompanied by sound effects vaguely reminiscent of Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel.
As small cars can easily get lost in parking lots, Lexus helpfully painted our tester a fluorescent shade known as Daybreak Yellow Mica, a color apparently inspired by Neil Diamond’s onstage wardrobe. Otherwise, the CT is a handsome if somewhat nondescript vehicle. The flared rear fenders give the illusion of a foreshortened sedan, while the sloped C-pillar keeps it from looking too much like a Matrix.
Our tester was also equipped with a power driver’s seat, black “Nuluxe” fake leather and a “premium” sound system that offered vaguely better fidelity from FM broadcasts than AM ones. Space was adequate for two people up front, though rear seat and cargo room was significantly pinched compared to the current generation Prius.
Mounted high above the dash was an almighty navigation screen controlled by a trackball-like apparatus known as Lexus Remote Touch. While the name sounds inspired by the seedier reaches of Craigslist, it’s a pretty cool party trick. The remote controller gives haptic feedback that gently nudges the mouse pointer over available on-screen selections, meaning you don’t have to aim the mouse at 60 mph. I had no problem using it while driving and keeping my eyes on the road, and Lexus engineers claim it distracts drivers less than touch screens or scroll wheels.
The gauge cluster is free of most hybrid-related frippery. Under “Eco” or “Normal” settings, the CT features one of the most intuitive hybrid function meters I’ve ever seen. With labels for “Charge” “Eco” and “Power,” it not only shows exactly what the drivetrain is doing at any given time, but also encourages drivers to lay off the gas to save fuel. I ignored the poorly animated energy diagram that also took up valuable dashboard real estate.
Dialing up “Sport” mode trims the gauge cluster in red and replaces the hybrid meter with a tachometer. Though I’ve been driving hybrids for almost a decade, there’s still novelty in seeing the needle stay at 0 under electric-only acceleration.
Unfortunately, the interior was far from flawless. The initial impression of clean lines gave way to a center stack cluttered with superfluous buttons. I counted four distinct ways of changing the radio station, and separate selectors for radio, CD and satellite could’ve been simplified into a single “mode” button. Those with sensitive tushes might appreciate the 29-position (!) seat heater selector. My posterior must be woefully unrefined, as it couldn’t even tell the difference between levels as disparate as 4 and 19.
As Lexus defines it, the CT 200h is a great car. But cars can’t be judged in a single-vehicle class vacuum. If you’re interested in this car, I’d recommend you first take a trip down to your Audi dealer and try out the A3 TDI. With only slightly lower fuel economy numbers and a very similar MSRP, it’s the driver’s choice. A fully-loaded Golf TDI might not have the cachet of a premium brand, but it does have an optional stick shift. If it’s the all-important mileage number you’re after, load up a Prius to the gills, get 53 mpg on the highway and take a vacation with the money you save.
Should you end up loving the Lexus, that’s your prerogative. There are plenty of people who prefer Paul to George, Starship to Jefferson Airplane and The Honeydrippers to Led Zeppelin. If you’ve got a two-hour stop-and-go commute from some godforsaken sprinkler city, it might just be the ideal car.
Give the CT 200h a chance. Just don’t assume that it’s the best because it’s the only one of its kind.
Photos courtesy of Toyota Motors
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