Thursday, February 23, 2012


A question: Does this look like a Lexus to you?
Ignore that slant L emblem in the center of the hood for a moment and I think you will agree with me that, no, this car doesn’t fit the Lexus profile.
Badging from the parent company Toyota would be more fitting, at least in my view.
Doesn’t make it a bad car or anything of the sort. It just isn’t what I have come to expect from the Japanese automaker in its luxury line
Perhaps with the CT 200h, the company is breaking new ground.

What we have here is the least expensive -- one hesitates to use the more succinct “cheapest” when referring to a luxury auto -- Lexus on the market, and the most fuel efficient.

It checks in at under $30,000, a little over $4,000 less than the next up-the-line, the IS 250, and, with its hybrid drivetrain, delivers fuel mileage rated at 43 miles-per-gallon city, 40 highway. Those figures, you could correctly surmise, as the best among Lexus models, roughly 8-6 mpg (city vs. highway) better than its “cousin,” the Lexus HS 250h sedan.
That’s not quite as good as the new Prius Hatchback (51/48) with which it shares its drivetrain technology, but it’s still pretty impressive.
Lexus introduced the CT 200h for the 2011 model year, trumpeting it as “a hybrid with sporty, sexy styling, dynamic handling, best in class mileage and all the luxury of a Lexus.”

I think it met its goal. The styling -- even if un-Lexus-like, does please the eye, the handling (when in “sport” mode) offers a bit more than you get from the usual gas-electric hybrid, and the mileage and luxury are there.
The cabin is roomy and comfortable and high-quality materials are evident throughout. There isn’t quite the overkill in refinements found in the rest of the Lexus line, but it’s obvious you’re not sitting in a basic Prius either.
There are some interesting touches, starting with the gear shift lever.
Equipped with a CVT (continuously variable transmission), there is no need for the usual kind of shift lever offering a selection of gears. There is simply a handle sticking out of the center stack that lets you slide the transmission into Drive or Reverse. Then it snaps back into place and you forget about it. You push a button to put it in Park.
The most intriguing aspect is what Lexus calls the Remote Touch controller. It operates various functions that are displayed on the screen at the top of the center stack.
I can’t remember where I first saw this -- it may have been on a Prius, but I’m not sure -- but basically Toyota figured that because most people these days are familiar with how a computer mouse works, it could take advantage of that familiarity and incorporate it into the operation of not just the navigation system but the audio, climate and other car settings as well.
You use a knob on the console, which is within easy reach of the driver, to move a little “finger” on the screen to whatever function you want, and then squeeze the bar next to the “mouse” to complete the operation.

It really doesn’t take that much to get the hang of it. Even I managed it the first time and without diving deep into the owner’s manual.
The nice thing is that you can operate some functions, like turning up or lowering the volume on the radio or changing stations, by turning knobs on the center stack or using the duplicate, steering wheel-mounted controls.
Speaking of knobs, there is one big one in the center near the bottom of the center stack. You turn it to select what driving mode -- economy, normal, or sport -- you want to use. Like the gear shift, the knob snaps back into place after you turn it and a little light in the instrument panel confirms what mode you have selected.
Pressing a button next to the knob puts the car in EV mode. The CT 200h features a four-cylinder gas engine and a pair of electric motors which, together, pump out 134 horsepower to the front wheels.
As with most hybrids, the switch between electric and gas power or a combination is seamless and dictated by your speed and other conditions. When you put the CT 200h in EV mode, you can run it on electric power only for short distances. Very short, I confirmed the time that I tried it. 
I liked to drive in sport mode, but don’t let the name fool you. The CT 200h isn’t going to suddenly turn into a competitive track car just because it is in sport. Though the steering and throttle response are a bit sharper, this is still a vehicle that labors to get from zero-to-60, nearly 10 seconds (9.8 according to company clockers).
Keep that in mind when you are trying to break into the flow of traffic at an intersection. Once up to speed, the CT 200h isn responsive enough, but I still gave oncoming vehicles plenty of space when I was passing on a two-lane road.

Probably the oddest feature on the center console is a gizmo that sticks up just to the right of the Remote Touch control. It holds your cellphone while you use Bluetooth for hands-free calling.
It slides back and forth on a track, and really seems quite fragile and flimsy I was surprised to find it on a Lexus. My guess is that it’s something that someone is going to break within the first six months you own the car.

It’s going to be interesting to see what comes in the future with the CT 200h. Going downline -- i.e., putting out less expensive models to widen your customer base -- doesn’t always work so well in the luxury market.
Perhaps its hybrid technology, which in itself is a selling point for a certain segment of the population, will help the CT 200h overcome that potential obstacle. But isn’t part of the appeal of owning a luxury car is that it allows you make the statement that you have made it in the world?
Not sure that works in the CT 200h. But I’ve been wrong before. Oh, boy, have I!

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