Lexus recently introduced an all-new car, the CT 200h, and it's a hybrid in more ways than one.
Unless you're a descendant of Gregor Mendel or his peas, it's likely you think of hybrids in strictly automotive terms.
But let us not forget that the term has long been more broadly applied to the result of two dissimilar entities being combined. Think of the pluot, a sweet combination of the plum and apricot.
To that end, this five-door hatchback is a hybrid of performance and efficiency, entry-level economics and stylish luxury and, unfortunately, Lexus and cost cutting.
The CT 200h sits at the bottom of the Lexus lineup, and the company hopes to use the car as a gateway drug to lure younger consumers into Lexus dealerships for the first time. Frankly it's surprising Lexus didn't come out with this car sooner.
The car starts at $29,995 for a well-equipped base model, and a short options list can top out a CT at an eyelash shy of $40,000. This price range, the hatchback styling and the younger, more urban target audience mean its competitors become other premium compact cars such as the Audi A3, Volvo C30 and BMW 1 Series.
Putting the "hybrid" in this hybrid is the same drivetrain that's in the current-generation Prius. In this application, the
rates fuel economy at 43 miles per gallon in the city and 40 mpg on the highway. Over about 250 miles, I averaged almost 38 mpg.
The engine is a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder piece that puts out 98 horsepower. Working in tandem with this engine is an electric motor with a maximum output of 80 horsepower (60 kilowatts).
Yet the total horsepower for this Lexus is 134. Do not adjust your calculators; 98 plus 80 still doesn't equal 134. Lexus says the car puts out only that much because the nickel-metal hydride battery is capable of transferring only 36 horsepower from the electric motor, hence the total of 134 horsepower.
Drivers can choose how to wield this power using the standard Drive Mode Selection feature. Using a dial on the center console, drivers can choose from Eco, Normal (the default setting) and Sport settings.
The Eco mode limits your ability to accelerate and restricts the air conditioning to maximize efficiency. Sport mode bumps the electric motor's output to its maximum voltage, firms up the steering and allows the gas engine to rev high. It delays the point at which the CT's standard traction control and stability control intervene. Unfortunately, these aids cannot be turned off completely.
Putting the CT into Sport mode also switches the efficiency gauge next to the speedometer into a tachometer and changes the backlighting to an ominous red.
Although this display change is a nifty trick, it has no practicality. Knowing your engine speed is useful in other cars, but that's because you can control the gear you're in. However, this Lexus uses a single-speed, continuously variable transmission (CVT) to route its power to the front wheels. In this instance, rpm is meaningless.
The transmission worked fine in Eco and Normal modes; it was content to keep the engine operating at a low speed, making things quiet in the cabin. Only when switched to Sport and the engine was allowed to explore higher rpm did things get uncharacteristically noisy for a Lexus.
Had Lexus added the ability to simulate shifts, as seen on other CVTs, it's reasonable to think passenger enjoyment and driver engagement would have been greater.
Also making things unfortunately loud given the Lexus pedigree was road noise. You notice too much of it while driving on the freeway. Purely anecdotal evidence points to the insubstantial body panels and doors that close with a thin sound that might be acceptable on a low-end Toyota Yaris but not a Lexus that can run you $40,000.
Noisy oversights aside, driving the CT can actually be fun. It's here that one can appreciate the, ahem, "hybridization" of fuel efficiency and driving dynamics. Can you say that about your Prius?
With a 0-60 acceleration time of 9.8 seconds, this car views performance through the lens of handling prowess rather than brute strength. Neck-snappingly powerful it isn't, not even close.
But the CT's balance, composure and communicative steering make for an entertaining dance partner on twisty roads. This was especially true with the car in Sport mode. It gripped well throughout turns, showed only hints of understeer and generally made the most of its independent rear suspension.
The inside of the CT also welcomes spirited driving. The seats are wonderfully supportive and comfortable. The size and shape of the steering wheel merits a mention. I wanted to take it with me to my next car.
The rest of the cabin has a substantive, upscale feel to it with one exception.
Base CTs come with a stereo system that looks as if it was pulled out of the original Lexus LS 400 (circa 1989). But at least it's attached to decent speakers. Adding the optional navigation system is a pricey venture at $3,545, but the upgrade includes a better sound system and a backup camera.
The $32,325 CT 200h Premium I tested lacked the navigation system but did have fake leather seats, XM satellite radio, eight air bags and Bluetooth connectivity. A moon roof, heated front seats and a backup camera that's cleverly placed in the rear-view mirror were options.
Lexus expects to sell 1,000 a month, but hitting this goal will depend on whether enough buyers can look past the CT's noise and pricey options list and find that it strikes the right balance between economics and luxury.
Which it does. It's a hybrid hybrid. Gregor Mendel would be proud.