A Little Sport to Go With Hybrid Drive
Is it possible for a hybrid car to also be a sporty car? The answer is…it depends. It depends on what your expectations are when it comes to hybrid fuel economy, and what your definition is of sporty when applied to cars.
Enter the 2016 Lexus CT 200h. It strives to be both a hybrid and sporty. The result is a pretty good achievement of one facet and a not-quite-there of the other.
On the hybrid side, the CT’s fuel economy isn’t quite in Prius territory (52 mpg combined). However, its EPA rating of 42 mpg combined gave it the distinction of being the first vehicle in the luxury segment to step over the 40-mpg line when introduced in 2011—an excellent achievement.
Note that there’s the letter “y” after sport. We’re not talking sports car here. If a car’s styling is part of your definition of sporty, then the CT 200h certainly receives high marks.
If quick is included in the equation, then a 0-to-60 mph time of 10.2 seconds falls way short. Perhaps handling is a more important ingredient for a sporty car than quickness, and this is where the CT 200h becomes entertaining and the fun factor makes an appearance.
Unfortunately, fun isn’t present 100 percent of the time.
What’s New For 2016
Lexus gave the CT 200h a refresh in 2014, revising the exterior and updating features. The most significant change was up front with the inclusion of the now signature Lexus “spindle” grill.
Other than a chrome surround for the grill and newly offered optional sunroof, there are no exterior or interior changes for 2016.
Base price for the 2016 CT 200h price is $31,250, plus $940 destination charges. Choosing the F Sport edition adds $1,180.
Both the standard and F Sport CT 200h are powered by what is essentially a Toyota Prius hybrid powertrain. It starts with an efficient Atkinson cycle 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that generates 98 horsepower and 105 pounds-feet of torque. Combined with an 80 horsepower electric motor, a generator and a 202-volt nickel-metal hydride battery pack, the series and parallel hybrid system produces a total of 134 horsepower.
A continuously variable transmission (CVT), the only transmission available, directs the push to the front wheels.
Not the Usual Lexus Style
Placing an upward-hinged back door instead of a trunk on a small car doesn’t seem very Lexus-like, but the CT 200h was designed for Europe where luxury five-door hatchbacks have become a large segment of the market.
The question is, does the CT attract eco-minded luxury buyers? After all, American automotive history is teeming with hatchbacks that didn’t make it, like the short-lived Lexus IS 300 Sportcross.
Apparently the answer is yes. The 2016 Lexus CT 200h is the second best-selling Lexus hybrid model through the first half of 2016, following only the RX 450h crossover SUV.
In its favor, the CT has strong visual connections to the LF-Ch concept unveiled at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show. Athletic styling is accentuated by a slightly raked roofline, while eye-catching details include a character line flowing down its side, and the crease above the rocker panel.
On the backside, the unique-to-Lexus rear-access door straddles the line between hatchback and wagon and has a small, stylish lip that runs through the middle of the liftgate.
Like the exterior, the CT’s cabin also plays off the LF-Ch concept with a two-tiered dash. Missing, however, is the expected Lexus lush leather and polished wood. That said, the interior is appropriate for an entry luxury vehicle with high quality materials accented by metal trim.
Lexus did a commendable job of carving as much space as possible in a compact car. In front, we found the driver and passenger front seats comfortable seating positions with good head- and legroom. For those in back; well, it’s a compact.
The 60/40-split rear seatbacks fold forward, providing a flat cargo floor, and there’s plenty of room behind the backseat for a week’s worth of groceries.
To compete in the compact luxury class Lexus has equipped the CT with all of the desired standard features. Plus, there’s a magnum load of options that can push the $31,250, starting price beyond $40,000. We were surprised to find the Mark Levinson audio system missing from the options list.
Fuel Economy or Fun?
The 2016 Lexus CT 200h’s hybrid system offers four driving modes: EV, Eco, Normal and Sport. EV mode allows drivers to go all-electric at speeds up to 35 mph for about a mile, depending on the battery’s state-of-charge. Normal mode brings the CVT into play, allowing the car to respond to changing driving conditions by instantaneously adjusting its gear ratios.
Normal was well-suited for a day trip from Olympia, Washington, to Portland, Oregon. Once the CT was up to speed on the Interstate it held the 72 mph cruise control setting reasonably well.
There are more than a few uphill grades on the route, and they required right foot intervention to keep pace with traffic. But most of the time it was easy to forget that I was driving a hybrid. At the end of the day after driving 262 miles, the CT lived up to its 40 mpg EPA highway rating.
The save-the-environment Eco mode alters the Normal setting to provide maximized fuel economy for gas-electric driving by slowing cabin cooling, limiting throttle input and boosting battery charging. Best suited to city driving, I found the Eco mode aptly named. I scooted about town; well, not really scooted, for 67 miles and the fuel economy readout indicated 44.7 mpg, nearly two miles per gallon more than the estimated EPA number.
Acceleration was sluggish, but adequate for city traffic. The transition between all-electric driving and gas-powered driving was often not noticeable. Similarly, the car’s stop-start system is as good as they get, with the gas engine firing up after being stopped and moving the car forward without any stuttering.
The “fun” personality of the car is introduced with the Sport mode, which is calibrated towards performance and handling. In this setting, throttle response is cranked up considerably, power
control from the battery is increased from 500 to 600 volts and the CT’s electric power steering is adjusted to be more responsive.
There are some wonderful, little used two-lane rural roads in the Olympia area, and they were waiting to see if Lexus’ claim that the CT 200h is fun-to-drive held up.
Driving enthusiasts will say the CT is morbidly slow, and they’d be right. But quickness and speed aren’t the only qualifiers for having a little fun behind the steering wheel.
It became immediately clear that the car’s steering is impressively accurate and the chassis is well-balanced. The CT can tap dance on twisty roads with agility and assured grip. When pushed hard, though, a couple of deficiencies make an appearance.
First, the gas engine lacks mid-range torque that the electric motor just can’t compensate for, which lowers the fun level when exiting a curve. Second, the CVT is too slow to react to either decreasing or increasing speeds and hold a gear ratio. Why Lexus doesn’t equip the CT with paddle shifters—other carmakers do—is a mystery to me.
The Car for You?
The 2016 Lexus CT 200h doesn’t have any direct competitors. If you recognize the sensibility of the hatchback design and want the amenities that the luxury class offers along with superb fuel economy, it’s your only choice.
The closest non-hybrid is the 2016 Volkswagen Golf. While it offers more engaging driving, it is not in the luxury league and can only manage a combined 29-mpg.
The CT 200h erases the dork factor associated with hybrid cars. But like most small hatchbacks, interior space could be an issue. So too could the fact that it’s a little shy on being truly sporty. But if you look beyond what the Lexus CT 200h doesn’t offer, you may be charmed by what it does offer.
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