CT200h: Lexus Mileage Champ
By Bill Moore
Smarter people than me sit down every year and compare the economic value of an expanding range of hybrid electric cars from high-end BMWs to the Ford Fusion Hybrid. For the time being, most of the cars just don't seem to stack up in the ROI department, at least according to groups like the British Columbia Automobile Association. Of course, what can't be measured are the intangibles like the sheer delight of driving a vehicle that is just a bit more fun and frugal in terms of the fuel they burn than the competition.
One of the few exceptions is the Lexus CT200h hybrid. Some reviewers liken it to an upscale Prius, but any similarity to Toyota's ground-breaking hyrid seems an unfair comparison to me. Mechanically, there are similarities, for sure, but when you climb into the car, as I had the opportunity this week in San Francisco, you are not slipping into Prius mode.
Having seen the positive reviews of the car from the financial-side, I was eager to see what it was like from the performance and aesthetics angle. On the latter point, the CT200h bears no similarity that I can detect to its more plebeian cousin. Where the Prius has been sculpted to slip through the air with as little drag as possible, the five-door Lexus 'fastback' -- if that's the proper term these days -- seems intent on defying the forces of nature. Its co-efficient of drag is 0.29 compared to Prius' 0.26. Still, that's not all that bad, especially since it uses the same 1.8L four cylinder engine to deliver 0-60 mph acceleration of 9.8 seconds, the same as the newest generation Prius. Somehow it just seems quicker.
Other differences include weight: the CT is 78 lbs heavier, some five inches shorter and a 'skosh' wider. The Prius has somewhere around 50 percent more cargo space behind the passenger seat. Sure, both are five-door, five-passenger vehicles, but the CT is more a car for empty-nesters than growing young families.
Where the CT200h excels is in its interior appointments. It looks and feels like a Lexus, though for about half the price you'd pay for their truly upscale luxury models, although my first impression of the glove box is that it doesn't convey the same sense of quality as the rest of the car. Pretty much all plastic, it seems overly flimsy, but that's my only negative perception at the moment.
A caveat seems appropriate at this point: I have had the car just 24 hours, having retrieved it from the Park 'n Fly lot near San Francisco International Airport. Toyota kindly invited me to attend their Green Drive Expo at which they will roll-out the Plug-In Prius. I arranged to come out a day early so I could drive the car around the Bay area while visiting several electric motorcycle start-ups here in Silicon Valley. You'll hear --and see -- more about those meetings here on EV World.com. This much can I say, this car quickly grows on you. It offers fuel economy close to that of the Prius: 43 mpg combined city/highway compared to the Toyota's 49 mpg.
Which brings me to the matter of the missing fuel economy display.
Generation One and Two Prius drivers have been treated over the last decade to a wealth of driving performance information promimently displayed on the central dash board screen. An animation of the drivetrain shows the instanteous ebb and flow of energy coursing through the hybrid drive system moment-by-moment. Bar graphs highlight the fuel economy of the vehicle in minute-by-minute increments. Yes, you can change the screen to set the cabin temperature or tune in your favorite FM station, but always the display will return to the fuel economy read out, at least that's the way we drive our 2009 Prius.
The CT200h is different. When you climb into the car, its information screen is stowed in the down position on top of the dash. Push the start button to fire up the hybrid drive and the screen rises up and turns own, defaulting, in the case of my test drive, to the GPS navigation system, an option in the car. Since I brought along my own Garmin with my appointment locations already programmed into it, I didn't use Lexus' system. Instead, as I headed onto the 101 and then I-280 just south of the airport, I started looking for the fuel economy display. It took me a bit of snooping before I figured out how to control the screen, which is too far away from the driver to be controlled by touch. Instead there's a funny little toggle device on the center console that you use to move an arrow-like cursor. A button on the side of the display controller activates the selection like the mouse on your home computer.
So, want to listen to the radio: push the "Menu" button in front of the toggle and up pops the list of functions from climate control to Lexus' Enform driver information service similar to GM's OnStar. After setting the radio to a station I could live with, I then began hunting, in vain, for information on how I was driving. It wouldn't be until I was heading up the coast between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay that I found most of the information I was looking for: the fuel economy perfornance display, which unlike my Prius, shows it on a minute-by-minute bar graph that max's out at 60 mpg. Now I was getting somewhere, besides have a great time enjoying the cool afternoon breezes off the glistening silver gray Pacific.
Still, it bugged me that I couldn't figure out what my average fuel economy was. I just knew the information had to be there, but between enjoying the view of the ocean and dealing with rush hour traffic, I figured it really wasn't all that important that I divert my attention hunting for it. Still, its lack of prominence seemed a kind of metaphor to me. People who buy the Prius are, generally speaking I suppose, serious about saving fuel, while making an environmental statement; and believe me there are LOTS of those wonderful people here in the Bay area. I would hazard a guess that the Prius is now the most singularly popular car on the road here. Driving up California 1 or what's also called the Cabrillo Highway, it seems a score or more Priuses passed me heading south along the 30+ mile stretch of coastal road.
Since most Lexus hybrids share the same platform with their non-hybrid siblings -- with the exception of the CT200h -- they aren't easy to spot. A small "Hybrid" badge low on the body panel ahead of the rear fender well is all that tells you this car uses a combination of battery, electric motors and a gasoline engine to improve its fuel economy and/or its performance. This is perhaps a round-about way of saying that for many Lexus buyers, the latter ranks higher on their personal priority list than the former. Where the Prius (at least generation one and two) are pretty much "in your face" showing how efficient the car is, the CT200h is far more subtle. The information is there, but you have to work to find it. It took an over-dinner conversation with Toyota's Corporate Manager for Cars and Vans, Rick LoFaso, who drives a CT200h, to finally learn where to find the average fuel economy information. It's sandwiched into a digital stack of four other displays on the dash that you toggle through using a button on the steering wheel. (BTW, Lofaso says that he consistently sees 45 mpg with his car). On my 5 AM drive back to the airport for the flight back to Omaha, I finally found how I -- and probably an untold number of earlier drivers before me -- have been doing: 42.6 mpg.
I also learned a few other things about the car in my conversations with Toyota executives. For example, the two-inch silver dial marked Eco and Sport allow you to adjust both the car's suspension and the throttle responsiveness. In Eco, the ride softens a bit, but more importantly the throttle responds slightly less aggressively than in the Sport mode with its firmer ride. Pushing the knob automatically resets everything back to "normal" driving mode, something between the two extremes.
As for the CT200h's handling, it seems, in the 100 or so miles I've had the pleasure to drive it on crazy California freeways and twisting coastal mountain roads, to live up to my expectations of it being a nimble sport sedan. One of the reasons I wanted to drive up the 101 was so I could compare how the car performed climbing up the grade out of Half Moon Bay in CA 92. I had driven this same stretch of road last Spring in the Prius V, which is equipped with the same 1.8L engine. Maintaining 55-60 mph in the V seemed to really press the engine, at least it sounded that way. Racing up the same road seemed far less a chore in the CT200h, which I have to attribute to much better sound deadening in the Lexus. In fact, the car is so quiet I can hear the perpetual ringing in my ears that comes with tinnitus, which has been slowly developing over the years.
So, how would I describe the ideal customer for this car? He or she would be interested in driving a prestige car line like Lexus, but at a budget conscious price that is just a few thousand more than a top-of-the line Prius, depending on how it's equipped. The base sticker price is $29,120, not including shipping.
Next they want a car that doesn't look like a hybrid, but more like a sporty European touring car, yet offers a respectable 40+ mpg, and could, conceivably with careful driving, approach the fuel economy of its cousin, the Prius. It should be well appointed and comfortable; and here Toyota's Lofaso admitted that he found the seats in his CT200h the most comfortable he's sat in with a firmness and side support that he appreciates; and, of course, the power seats can be programmed for three different driver settings. Naturally there are the standard electric windows, dual climate zone heating and cooling, cup holders, etc.
Overall, the CT200h might share the 1.8L engine and Hybrid Synergy Drive with the Prius, but there most similarities end... and the Lexus driving experience begins.
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