Combat testing for Lexus’ new everyman hybrid |

Combat testing for Lexus’ new everyman hybrid

2011 Lexus CT 200h Hybrid

New Orleans – The still-recovering Big Easy remains one of America’s most eclectic communities, and still an absolutely mind-blowing cultural experience. But even five years later, the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina remain front and center.

Subsequently, given the chance to tool around the Crescent City this week in a pre-production model of Lexus’ new, affordably priced, Gen X-focused, extremely high-mileage hybrid, you get the feeling that New Orleans’ still post-apocalyptic roadways might be better geared to a giant Tundra pickup than a mostly sporty hybrid.

My impressions of the new CT 200h, available at dealers in March, suggest the automobile’s stiff and sport-oriented suspension will provide hellacious joy out on a nice stretch of twisty summertime road (and probably even get you through a moderate amount of fresh snow, equipped with the right tires) – but New Orleans’ pothole-dotted roads definitely ate the car for breakfast.

CT (“compact touring”) joins the Lexus family as the company’s fifth hybrid offering, aggressively marketed to capture 30- to 40-somethings who’d otherwise opt for a Volvo C30, Audi A3 or BMW 1-series, but are eco-oriented enough to give the luxury hybrid world a shot.

To that end, the CT is expected to sticker at roughly $30,000, making it Lexus’ lowest-priced model, though it still comes loaded with the technological tools and toys that typify the brand.

Looks put it somewhere between an elongated Mazda3, the Audi A3 hatchback and maybe a longer, larger Scion xD or Toyota Matrix, with Lexus’ gracious nose, curved body lines and loads of LED headlights and brakelights.

The new CT borrows the same Atkinston cycle hybrid system featured in the current Prius, with a 1.8-liter engine, electric motor and new long-life battery pack working together to produce 134 horsepower and a maximum 650 volt burst of electric energy.

It’s not going to smoke tires (0 to 60 time is 9.8 seconds, top speed is 113 mph) but can still be ambitiously chucked around, provided you’re in a pothole-free environment. Most importantly, the CT generates EPA mileage figures of 43 highway and 40 city.

During my leisurely tooling along Tchoupitoulas and Magazine Streets, I occasionally hit an indicated 60 mpg. It can also be operated in a short-term, full-electric mode, up to 20 miles per hour.

The multi-mode drive system is controlled with an overly obvious but easy-to-use knob on the center console; the instrument panel instantly changes to show either an efficiency monitor or a traditional tachometer, with mood lighting to match. The CT also shares the Prius’s shift control pattern, though here the lever is swapped out for a chrome lever that looks like a high-end golf putter.

Hybrids’ propulsion systems still produce lots of weird noises, with loads of odd clicks and pops and whooshes. And starts are also slow, even in the more power-rich sport mode, but after a few hours of driving, you might begin to forget the hybrid thing entirely.

Though the phrase “hatchback” was not once mentioned in Lexus’ sales pitch, CT is indeed a five-door hatch with reasonably sized rear seats and 14.3 cubic feet of storage in the far back.

Inside, Lexus has laboriously worked to craft its sportiest driver’s seat this side of the LF-A supercar, and I can confirm its pleasantly place-holding qualities. The rounded rear seatbacks do help when you’ve got to take some rear passengers along for the ride.

In the company’s ongoing push for environmentally friendly practices, a new synthetic leather substitute (“NuLuxe”) is available, much nicer to the touch than a cheap pleather jacket, or you can opt for ventilated leather and a range of wood or metal trim pieces.

And the list of largely standard tech stuff is quite astounding, ranging from a new center console adapter that will integrate everything from an iPod Nano to a Garmin, to Lexus’ own version of OnStar, called Enform. That curious, mouse-styled controller for the optional navigation system also makes an appearance.

Lexus has ambitiously aimed to sell 1,000 of the new hybrids a month in the United States, with a hipster-friendly Facebook, Twitter and YouTube push; buyers can also arrange test drives and even financing online.

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