As virtually everyone knows by now, Toyota and its Lexus luxury division have essentially led the field in hybrid technology. Ever since the debut of the first-generation Toyota Prius in 2000, both brands have added a broad selection of gasoline/electric models. As the 2011 model year began, Toyota had three (Prius, Highlander, and Camry). Lexus offered four (GS 450h, HS 250h, LS 600h L, and RX 450h).
Now, one more has been added to the Lexus hybrid list: the premium compact CT 200h hatchback. Though the basic layout is similar to that of Toyota's Prius, the two don't exhibit much resemblance. Like both the Prius and the moderately larger Lexus HS 250h, the CT 200h is a "dedicated" hybrid, not available with a gasoline engine alone.
Second-generation full (series/parallel) hybrid technology consists of a 1.8-liter, 98-horsepower gasoline engine, teamed with an 80-horsepower (60-kilowatt) electric motor. Total system output is 134 horsepower (100 kilowatts). The Lexus Energy Management System includes EV, ECO, and Sport modes for what Lexus describes as "distinct, Dynamic or Relaxing driving moods."
Lexus promises "seamless acceleration and the performance customers expect from a luxury vehicle." Specifically, the CT 200h can accelerate to 60 mph in a claimed 9.8 seconds. Also part of the CT package are "additional energy saving and environmentally-conscientious measures" including LED lights, an energy-efficient audio system with bamboo charcoal speakers, and the use of bio-sourced materials.
Rather than the lithium ion or lithium polymer batteries that several makers of hybrid vehicles have adopted recently, Lexus sticks with nickel-metal hydride technology. The 202-volt battery pack is rated at 27 kilowatts. A CT 200h can run on battery power alone for up to a mile, at no more than 28 mph.
Fuel economy is clearly a selling point, with an EPA estimate of 43 mpg in city driving and 40 mpg on the highway. Still, it falls markedly short of the gas mileage a Toyota Prius can deliver, by EPA reckoning: 51 mpg in the city and 48 mpg in highway use.
Standard safety features include antilock braking, stability and traction control, curtain-type airbags, front side-impact airbags, and front knee airbags. Also standard are keyless access/engine start, a tilt/telescopic steering wheel, USB port, and wireless cell-phone link.
Options include leather upholstery, a sunroof, navigation system, and adaptive cruise control. Lexus' available Pre-Collision System can apply peak braking force and tighten the seatbelts if an imminent collision is detected.
Serene is the word for the CT 200h driving experience, not only for its pleasantly smooth ride quality but also for the overall sense of security and efficiency. By going gently on the accelerator pedal, the CT 200h ran on battery power alone up to about 40 mph. Then, the transition to a combination of electric and gasoline power was barely discernible.
Handling is unexceptional, but satisfactory. Acceleration won't set any records, but it's definitely more than sufficient for safe passing and merging. The driver faces a big, high-mounted pop-up display screen, which presents a nicely color-coded flow diagram to demonstrate what's happening within the powertrain.
A Lexus CT 200h can be driven home for a Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price of $29,995 (including destination charge). Stepping up to a Premium model raises the outlay to $31,775.
2013 Update: Test-driving a 2013 Lexus CT 200h (F-Sport edition, added for 2012) essentially duplicated the original experience with a 2011 model. Enjoyable and capable, the CT delivers a nicely-controlled ride and, at least in F-Sport trim, mildly sportier handling. Performance is enthusiastic if ultimately modest, which is appropriate for a car of this caliber. Hybrid-powertrain transitions are barely noticeable, and a small, simple power flow diagram shows what's going on. Because of the low profile, getting in may be a bit tight; but once there, front-seat space is adequate, though headroom falls short of expansive and driver's elbow space is restricted. Seats are rather seriously supportive, but comfortable. A squat rear window, coupled with protruding headrests, impedes rearward visibility.
The Toyota/Lexus navigation screen, which used to be among the easiest to use, doesn't seem nearly as user-friendly anymore. Controls give an impression more like a jet plane than a compact car: fine for drivers who like lots of buttons, but not so much for those who just want to drive.