Best-looking hybrid is a Lexus
Are you tired of the look of the Toyota Prius and other sensibly styled gasoline-electric hybrid cars?
With a sporty exterior and arguably the most attractive styling for a hybrid auto, the 2011 Lexus CT 200h distinguishes itself from other hybrids. Even people not interested in a hybrid car noticed the good looks of the test Lexus CT.
Best of all, this new-for-2011 five-door, compact hatchback has a government rating of 43 miles a gallon in city driving and 40 mpg on highways. The higher city mileage rating is because the onboard electric motor has more opportunities to power the car in slow-speed traffic than it does on highways.
Starting MSRP, including destination charge, is surprisingly affordable for a Lexus. In fact, the CT carries the lowest retail base price — $29,995 — of any Lexus. The second-lowest base price at Lexus is for the base 2011 IS sedan at $34,170, and it isn't a hybrid. Note, though, that the base CT doesn't include leather seat trim, a moonroof, premium audio system or navigation system.
Other luxury-brand gas-electric hybrid cars carry much higher starting retail prices. For example, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz S-Class hybrid, which is a large sedan with V-6, is more than $90,000. The 2012 Infiniti M35 hybrid with V-6 starts at $54,575.
Still, the Lexus CT is premium priced above the well-known Prius hatchback from Lexus' parent company, Toyota.
A 2011 Prius, which has the same engine, electric motor and nickel-metal hydride onboard battery pack as the CT, has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $24,280.
And the CT's government mileage ratings, while commendable, aren't up to the 51/48-mpg rating that the 2011 Prius has.
Note that the CT, with the exterior sporty, young looks akin to that of a Mazda3 hatchback, is some 5 inches shorter in length than a Prius and is about 2 inches shorter in height.
The CT also isn't exactly sporty in power. The 1.8-liter, double overhead cam, four-cylinder, gasoline engine and 60-kilowatt electric motor together deliver 134 horsepower, which is the same horsepower as the 2011 Prius. Lexus gives the 0-to-60-miles-an-hour time of 9.8 seconds for the CT, which is similar to that of some non-hybrid, non-performance sport utility vehicles.
I liked the handling and ride of the test CT, which was a Premium model with perforated leather on the seats, a moonroof and upgraded audio system that topped out at nearly $35,000.
The CT suspension, which is decidedly not from the Prius, gave a firmness to the ride that wasn't harsh, and I felt well-connected to the road. Passengers noticed most road bumps as vibrations. But they weren't as pronounced as expected because of special suspension dampers.
Overall, the CT showed it could handle some sporty maneuvers with composure. I marveled that a compact hybrid, carrying along a heavy battery pack to store electric energy, could have so little body roll in corners and turns.
The electric power-assisted steering was one of the best I've experienced in a hybrid and thankfully lacked much of the artificial feel of other hybrids. Brakes worked fine in slow-speed conditions, but at higher speeds, the braking power didn't feel as if it was coming on in a progressive, linear fashion.
The interior of the CT was nicely quiet, save for some road noise from the 17-inch tires. But I never noticed any wind noise.
Lexus offers three modes of driving — normal, eco and sport - each activated with a touch of a button.
I managed a not-too-impressive 34.6 mpg in normal mode while driving 70 percent of the time in the city and on two-lane country roads and 30 percent on highways.
In sport mode, the throttle response is a tad faster and steering response is more immediate. Still, the transmission is a fuel-thrifty, continuously variable automatic that can drone on when the car is being pressed hard.
This Lexus only needs regular gasoline, and the CT's gas tank is the same size as the one in the Prius and can carry 11.9 gallons.
Fit and finish on the test CT was impressive, with body gaps and trim pieces all perfectly aligned.
I liked the tidy size of the CT steering wheel and its thickness. The well-bolstered front seats in the test CT gave good support, and front-seat passengers easily adjusted seats for comfortable travel.
Unfortunately, this impinged on space for back-seat passengers and made for tight quarters for 6-footers. As an example, rear-seat legroom is just 32.9 inches. Back-seat riders in the Prius get 36 inches.
The gimmick factor is there, too. When a driver switches from eco to sport mode, gauges change in the instrument cluster, too. Specifically, the dial that shows the driver when the battery pack is being charged up and when he or she is driving economically changes to a traditional tachometer. Also, the blue background lighting in the instrument cluster that's on during eco mode changes to red in sport mode.
Cargo space in back is on par with that of smaller sedans — 14.3 cubic feet behind the rear seats.
The test car had an optional rearview camera to help when I backed up. But the display screen for this camera was in a corner of the rearview mirror and was too small to provide good views.
Most other safety equipment is standard in the CT, such as eight air bags that include driver and front-passenger knee air bags so they stay in proper position in their seats in a frontal crash.
Anti-lock brakes, traction control, electronic throttle control and electronic stability control also are standard.