Newest Lexus Could Be My Favorite

2011 Lexus CT200h.

When most people think of Lexus, they probably envision luxurious, well-made sedans and crossover SUVs. Or perhaps they think of Lexus’s expanding line of hybrid vehicles. And a few of my fellow gearheads may be thrilled that the brand is branching out into performance cars.

The newest model to wear the Lexus badge, however, is none of those, and yet it’s all of those too. May I introduce you to the CT200h? It’s a sporty, luxurious hatchback, and a gas-electric hybrid too. Oh, and it has a starting price that’s a bargain for something with a Lexus badge.

At first glance, the CT just kind of looks like a generic five-door hatchback from one of the Japanese auto makers. Its shape has a little bit of Subaru, a hint of Nissan, but overall, the look of a Toyota or Lexus.

But step inside, and you can tell right off the bat that you’re in a small premium car. For those who think “small premium” is some kind of an oxymoron, it’s time to update your thinking. Having a car that’s loaded with luxury features, yet is efficient with fuel, is a trend that will continue to grow.

After settling into the very comfortable bucket seat, you tap the power button and the hybrid drive arrangement comes to life. The instrument cluster lights up, you hear a few clicks, and the gasoline engine might jump into action if the hybrid battery needs a little help.

The power delivery system in the CT200h is pretty much like the one in the Toyota Prius and other Toyota and Lexus models. At low speeds, the car can glide along under electric power alone. There’s even an “EV” setting which will keep the car purely electric for short spurts as long as the battery has sufficient juice and you don’t stomp on the pedal too hard.

What makes the CT different from other hybrids, like the Prius, Camry or another compact Lexus model, the HS250h, is that this one is really sporty to drive. For a hybrid, that is. It won’t be challenging any BMWs, but if you’d like the idea of driving a very fuel efficient car and like to take the twisty roads every once in awhile, this could be your ride.

The chassis is nice and tight, and the car wears 17” tires on handsome aluminum wheels. Taking one of my favorite curvy sections of two-lane road, I was really impressed with how well the CT200h stuck in the corners. The steering is very precise, and the tires gripped like crazy and didn’t complain much.

But when it’s time to accelerate out of a corner and head to the next one, that’s where you’re reminded that this is a hybrid with a pretty small four cylinder engine backing up the electric drive system. It kind of moans when you step hard on the gas, and just moves the car along at a pace that could generously be described as “brisk.”

Okay, so it’s not a rocket ship where acceleration is concerned. There’s only 134 horsepower combined (adding what the gas and electric motors are producing), but the payoff is fuel economy to the tune of 43 mpg in the city and 40 on the highway. Careful hyper-milers could probably even do better than that in the city with use of the EV mode and a steady throttle.

Beyond the athletic handling, the CT’s other attribute is the handy hatchback design. Very roomy front seats for two, limited space for two more in the rear seat, and then a generous cargo area out back. Folding the rear seat makes this Lexus hybrid into a kind of junior station wagon or crossover.

Base price for the CT200h is $29,120 which includes lots of amenities. Options are heated seats and a sunroof — which my test car had — plus things like leather upholstery and a navigation system.

This new Lexus is indeed a small premium car. It’s also a sporty car and a hybrid, all rolled into one.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net

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