2011 Lexus CT 200h Compact Hybrid Hatch: First Drive Review

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The 2011 Lexus CT 200h pretty much occupies a class of one.

At the moment, it’s the sole luxury compact hybrid hatchback sold in the U.S.

And it’s a dedicated hybrid, meaning there’s no gasoline-only version. If you want the compact hatch, you get the hybrid.

It’s also terra incognita for Lexus, which is better known for its luxury sedans but actually sells more of its RX luxury midsize crossover utility than any other model.

The unusual marketing campaign for the CT—“The Darker Side of Green”—bears witness to the brand’s goal of attracting a younger, hipper, more environmentally aware buyer.

The Lexus CT is the least expensive Lexus in the range, starting at roughly $6,000 more than the Toyota Prius with which it shares an engine and Hybrid Synergy Drive system.

2011 Lexus CT 200h compact hybrid hatchback, road test, June 2011

2011 Lexus CT 200h compact hybrid hatchback, road test, June 2011

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While the base price of our CT 200h test car was $30,900, the actual sticker was a steeper $36,725. That included the premium audio package ($1,100), the very nice Leather Package ($1,330), and the Navigation System at a stunning $2,445.

We also had the cargo net (highly recommended at $75) and $875 of mandatory delivery fee, meaning that our $30K luxury compact would likely be more than $40K with state taxes added.

We’re not clear on exactly what cars might be cross-shopped against the Lexus CT. We could imagine the 2011 Volkswagen Golf TDI, the clean-diesel version of VW’s workaday hatchback.

Or perhaps it’s the very highest-end versions of the ur-hybrid, the 2011 Toyota Prius itself, which can stretch into the mid-30s by adding options like the solar moonroof.

2011 Lexus CT 200h compact hybrid hatchback, road test, June 2011

2011 Lexus CT 200h compact hybrid hatchback, road test, June 2011

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Still, the Prius is top-rated at 50 mpg on the EPA combined cycle, versus the slightly lower 42 mpg of the Lexus CT—and the Prius is defined as a midsize car by interior volume, while the CT is clearly a compact.

But if the Lexus CT ever gets compared to the most luxurious versions of capable compact hatchbacks like the more powerful 2012 Ford Focus (with 160 hp and an EPA combined average of 31 mpg), we worry for its future.

The upper-end Focus Titanium trim level of the Focus includes luxury features like rear-view camera, push-button start, and HD radio, and a few that the 2011 CT 200h doesn't offer, like Ford's very good active parking assist.

Even loading on every feature, a Focus Titanium tops out at roughly $10,000 less than the CT. We're not sure many buyers will cross-shop the two, but if they do, they may conclude that the lure of the Lexus name and higher mileage may not be worth that differential.

Hardly an attention-seeker

The 2011 Lexus CT 200h is a somewhat squat-looking five-door compact hatchback. It has none of the gee-whiz design elements of the Toyota Prius (with which it shares large portions of its drivetrain). Nor are its lines particularly daring, as they are on the 2012 Ford Focus hatchback—which is likely to sell in volumes 10 times greater, or more.

2011 Lexus CT 200h compact hybrid hatchback, road test, June 2011

2011 Lexus CT 200h compact hybrid hatchback, road test, June 2011

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Indeed, the Lexus CT attracted not a single comment, glance, or turned head during our entire test. This may have been due to the muted metallic brown color—known as Fire Agate Pearl—but we think it may be an invisible luxury car.

Or perhaps any compact hatchback, no matter how it’s labeled or styled, is perceived as an economy car and consequently ignored?

Inside, we liked the restrained Lexus design approach. We’re not huge fans of the 2011 Toyota Prius “flying buttress” center stack design, and it was good to see that Lexus had a conventional console and armrest.

That armrest wasn’t designed for driving, though. The Lexus controller for navigating through the menus on the navigation system is particularly good, with side-click button that lend it an intuitive mouse-like feel. And it’s comfortable for the driver to prop an elbow on the padded top of the compartment between the seats to use what we came to call “the mouse.”

Unfortunately, the driver’s right elbow sits on an uncomfortable stretch of hard plastic between that padded top and the controller. And the padded top doesn’t slide forward. Owww.

Leaked 2011 Lexus CT 200h images

Leaked 2011 Lexus CT 200h images

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From stodgy to Sport

The 2011 Lexus CT 200h pairs a 1.8-liter engine with two electric motor-generators in the Toyota Hybrid Synergy drive system, for a combined total power of 134 hp. It can run solely on electric power at low speeds and under light loads, though not quite as much as the lighter Toyota Prius with which it shares its powertrain.

Like any vehicle with Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system, the CT 200h will perform on demand. But it doesn’t sound particularly happy doing it. Like its larger sedan brother, the Lexus HS 250h, it has enough sound insulation to mask the worst of the howling engine noise when high power is demanded. But it’s not inspiring to drive.

Unless, that is, you discover Sport mode. Of the three drive modes—Normal, Eco, and Sport—the only one worth discussing is Sport. Eco is what you’d expect: the car provides slower and more grudging acceleration, a feeling as though it’s trapped in molasses.

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