AutoLexus entry hybrid a chic alternative to Prius

Lexus entry hybrid a chic alternative to Prius

Lexus entry hybrid a chic alternative to Prius

Photos by Neil Moore

Rear 60/40 seats fold flat to enlarge the carpeted 405-litre cargo hold.

At first glance, the CT 200h seems a bit of a head scratcher.

On the one hand, its low-roofed, square shouldered and chiseled styling suggests attitude, making it one of the more striking hatchbacks I’ve driven.

On the other, this Lexus is powered by the same, thrifty drivetrain you’ll find in Toyota Prius. Which doesn’t use its electrics for added boost – as do other premium hybrids, like BMW ActiveHybrid3 or Lexus stablemates like the GS and RX.

No, the CT is more about penny pinching than performance.

Depending on whether you’re a glass-is-half-empty or half-full kind of person, such observations could lead you in two directions:

1) The CT 200h is a hot hatch without the heat.

2) The CT 200h is a more fetching take on the Prius.

Either way, this is a niche vehicle, as luxury hybrid hatchbacks are a rare breed – and the CT was the first of its kind. It launched here in 2011 as the entry point to the Lexus lineup, and hasn’t been flying off the shelves. Sales in Canada were 546 units last year, down from 814 in 2015.

Making it an option for those seeking something offbeat. Like the discontinued Volvo C30, which shares a similar profile and, in my mind, was one of the most handsome hatches of its day.

Although the CT diverges from Prius’s futuristic shape and sheet metal, and is priced and packaged at a higher level – starting at $32,900 versus $27,190 for its Toyota sibling – both vehicles share a 1.8-litre four cylinder with electric motor that delivers a combined 134 hp in the CT and 121 hp in the Prius.

The CT 200h has a divided cockpit with abundant soft-touch surfaces and well-positioned instruments and controls.
Seats are wrapped in NuLuxe synthetic leather, which does a decent impression of the real thing.

It is mated to a continuously variable transmission (CVT) with no paddles or even a gear lever to ‘shift’ up and down preset ratios. Like Prius, the CT uses a tiny toggle to select Reverse, Neutral or Drive – along with a button for Park.

There are three drive modes in addition to ‘Normal.’ I sampled Eco mode briefly, but ditched it after a few kilometres as it saps the modest 1.8-litre of all get-up-and-go. EV mode (electric only) works for short distances, and only under a light throttle.

Front sport buckets are heated, with eight-way power adjust for the driver and four-way for the passenger. They offer long-haul comfort.

Normal is the default, delivering performance that is understandably Prius-like. Twisting the dial to Sport mode offers a little more fun. Instruments shift from blue to red illumination, the CVT is remapped to favour higher ratios, and with the electric motor providing instant torque when you punch the throttle, acceleration is tolerable. But it won’t get your heart racing.

Handling, however, is surprisingly tight. Thanks, in part, to hybrid components positioned for a low centre of gravity, not to mention my tester’s $5,600 F Sport Series 1 package that adds front and rear performance dampers to its fully independent suspension.

Standard speed-sensitive electric power steering provides just enough weight and feedback to make the CT feel responsive in the twisties. Indeed, hard cornering is precise – and with minimal body roll. Too bad, even in sport mode, you can’t really power out of a turn. The Prius drivetrain simply doesn’t have enough juice to make it happen.

Fortunately none of this tautness comes at the expense of ride quality. The CT absorbs rough pavement in a way befitting its nameplate.

Also on the plus side is fuel economy. The CT sips at a rate of 5.5/5.9 L/100 km (city/hwy), which may not match Prius, but is frugal nonetheless. The latter’s more aerodynamic shape and lighter weight may account for the difference, but I’d trade a few drops of petrol for a little panache any day.

Inside too, this Lexus lives up to the brand’s reputation, with a divided cockpit lined in NuLuxe synthetic leather. It’s a pretty good knockoff, but you can get the real thing with the F Sport Series 2 package, stretching the CT’s price to a lofty $41,350.

Overall, the interior layout looks upscale, and is ergonomically sound. Topping the neatly arranged centre stack is a large infotainment screen, controlled by a rotary puck located where your hand falls off the armrest. It works like a mouse, and although not as easy as some touchscreens, it is an improvement over the wobbly joystick employed in some Lexus vehicles.

Large buttons control climate, and there are volume and tuning knobs for audio – everything within easy reach.

The heated front buckets, with eight-way power adjust for the driver, (four-way for the passenger) are long-distance comfortable. But rear seats are tight. My 11-year-old daughter had no complaints, but her now gangly 14-year-old brother wasn’t having it. Here’s where Prius scores higher marks.

Ditto for price, but it’s hard to compare apples to apples. And if you’re willing to forgo the expensive F Sport Series 1 and 2 packages, you’ll pay $2,475 more for a well-equipped base CT 200h than a loaded, top-trim Prius.

I’m not sure what value you’d place on brand cachet, not to mention sharper styling, but for me $2,475 might just do it.

The CT’s lowered roofline, ending in an oversized spoiler, conveys attitude. Like a ballcap turned backwards.

SNAPSHOT: 2017 Lexus CT 200h
BODY STYLE: compact, premium hybrid hatchback
DRIVETRAIN: front engine, front-wheel-drive, with CVT
ENGINE: 1.8-litre Atkinson cycle four cylinder with electric motor (134 net system hp)
FUEL ECONOMY: 5.5/5.9 L/100 km (city/hwy)
CARGO: 405 litres with seats raised
PRICING: base $32,900; Touring Package $36,100; F SPORT Series 1 (as tested) $38,500; Executive Package $40,600; F SPORT Series 2 $41,350. Does not include freight and taxes. See website for accessories and current dealer pricing.

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