What do you get if you merge a four-door hatchback, an eco-friendly Prius engine, and radical styling?
Would you believe a Lexus hybrid?
Imagine a stretched version of the Scion xD or Toyota Matrix to provide the requisite number of doors and a hatch; toss a 1.8-liter four-cylinder gas motor and the current Toyota Prius mill under the hood, add a wide-stance and low slung body thatís but 4.6 feet tall, and youíve got the 2011 Lexus CT 200h.
The resulting car more resembles the departed Dodge Magnum retrofit with aggressive, attractive styling not usually found on a Lexus. The look is more familiar in the Scion tC, on whose platform this offering is based. Remember, one of Scionís original goals was to create a line for younger buyers who would remain loyal to the brand, matriculate to Toyota, and lounge in a Lexus in the latter years.
It seems the new Lexus and its boy-racer style is designed for the aging, conservative, energy-conscious driver who doesnít like the Prius look or its pokey but highly economical output.
I liked the aggressive styling on the fascia of this new Lexus, the companyís fifth hybrid, with its wraparound projector headlamps, oversized mirrors, and high beltline that helps you feel cosseted on the inside. An elongated roof augments its aerodynamic styling, with a rear spoiler lip atop the hatch and the smartly styled backside with under-car intakes and an optional backup camera. Also appreciated was the lack of large ďhybridĒ badges.
For those wondering, the CT 200h is six inches shorter overall with a four-inch shorter wheelbase than the Prius. Aside from the eco-mill, thereís little else shared from the Prius parts bin.
There are plenty of Lexus and Toyota cues to be found inside, making the interior familiar yet surprising. The CT has easy to access ergonomic controls, buttons with icons, and an intelligent mouse/joystick infotainment selector for the large screen that pops up from the center of the dash.
Shifting, however, finds you jiggling an oddly shaped chrome lever. Flip into reverse and you touch off a beeper similar to a delivery truck in a loading zone, yet thankfully itís only audible inside. A large round knob selects gears on the fly: Eco, normal or sport. The EV button propels the CT on the 168-cell battery pack alone. If you stay under 28 mph, say in the slog that is often Storrow Drive, you are doing an all-electric ride. Top 28 mph in the EV and the gas engine kicks in.
The eco mode is predictably Prius slow. Normal is a tad more spritely but not neck-snapping. Sport produces the ultimate changes for the better, without pushing you back in the buckets, and this may be a problem. The ride is so silent you may not check the speedometer. Tracking through corners is superb. Straightaway speed is fine, passing neednít be a planned event, and youíll need to pay attention to the posted speed limits Ö just in case.
With a hybrid vehicle weighing a ton and a half, connected to a front-drive CVT transmission, power is not the main focus. A listed 0-to-60 mph time of 9.8 seconds seems credible given the total 134 horsepower. If you push the motor it will remind you it prefers and performs best in its cruising attitude.
Perhaps the most notable change in Sport mode comes with the change of the dash color from blue to red. Also, underscoring the spirited Sport mode, the electronic hybrid meter for the other mode changes into a tachometer.
Adding to this are MacPherson struts up front together with a double wishbone rear suspension. Engineers placed a shock-like device between the front struts to absorb and soften the harshness that single struts would produce. The stability control program also dials itself down in this mode.
The bucket seats are solid. The driverís side gets electronic adjustments while the passenger seat features manual adjustments. That seems odd in a technological test bed. Consider also the CT is low, has fewer than six inches of ground clearance and sits upon 17-inch tires, so itís easy to realize why it tracks like a slot car. However, I canít imagine taking this through snow banks left by the plow and not getting stuck.
Room inside the CT ó initials stand for Compact Touring ó wonít cause claustrophobia. Everything is close but not cramped. Headroom is good up front but the sliding moonroof scrubs rear seat headroom where legroom is also greatly reduced.
The CT also amazed with its rear cargo room, augmented by the 60/40 split-folding rear bench seat. The spare tire resides under the rear cargo floor. The CT comes in two variants: a base and the premium, which offers more doo-dads and options that load it up well past its base MSRP of $31,999.
While folks will whine that thereís not enough power and complain that a missing manual transmission option is a transgression, one must also consider that this Lexus is a compact car and a hybrid. Lexus clearly has big plans for this car both home and abroad.
If you desire a small, eco-friendly car thatís not German, stands out in a crowd, and gives you the ability to dash while saving some cash, this could be the hybrid for you.
Gerry Miles can be reached at email@example.com.
2012 Lexus CT 200h
Price, base/as tested (with destination): $29,995 / $39,000
Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 43 city / 40 highway
Fuel economy, Globe observed: 41 mpg over 484 miles
Drivetrain: 1.8-liter I-4, 60-kilowatt electric motor and generator, continuously variable transmission, front-engine, front-wheel-drive.
Torque: 105 lb.-ft. (without electric motor)
Overall length: 170.1 in.
Wheelbase: 102.4 in.
Height: 56.7 in.
Width: 69.5 in. (without mirrors)
Curb weight: 3,206 lbs.
THE GOOD: Styling, high mileage, runs on regular gas
THE BAD: Beeping in reverse, small cubby storage space
THE BOTTOM LINE: A Prius in a Lexus suit.
ALSO CONSIDER: Chevrolet Volt, Honda Civic Hybrid, Honda CR-Z, Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, Volvo C30
A version of this article appeared on page J1 of The Boston Globe on Dec. 3, 2011.
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