After having only one model of the Toyota Prius since it was introduced as a 2001 model, the company is finally making use of the Prius hybrid platform for other models.
Late this summer, we'll get the larger Prius V, followed by the Prius C, a smaller, sportier entry-level hybrid entry. In early 2012, we should get the Prius plug-in model, which boosts battery capacity.
Available right now, though, is the 2011 Lexus CT 200h, which shares plenty of bits and pieces with the Prius. The CT 200h is a four-door hatchback, resembling a larger Mazda3 – it doesn't look like the Prius, or even a Toyota, or for that matter, a Lexus. That isn't a criticism – the CT 200h is a handsome, European-looking car that is reasonably roomy on the inside, but still has a sporting demeanor.
It also doesn't feel like a Prius, which is definitely a compliment. As much as I respect the Prius' technology and stellar fuel mileage, I've never much enjoyed driving one. The Lexus CT 200h is no Mazda Miata, but it is kind of fun to drive, especially when you select the "sport" mode, which the Lexus manual says to use "when high levels of response and feeling are desirable." The levels aren't that high, but it does at least remind you of another semi-sporty hybrid, the Honda CR-Z.
While the CT 200h does share a lot with the Prius, there are differences. The Prius is more than five inches longer, and the wheelbase is four inches longer. As you would suspect, the Prius is roomier inside, but the Lexus will swallow up four adults – five in a pinch – and 14.3 cubic feet of luggage. The Lexus' interior is nicer, and even the base model has plenty of features.
Still, if you get the base model CT 200h, which starts at $29,120, that's it. To get any additional features, you have to upgrade to the Premium model, which is $1,780 more. To that you can add one of four separate packages of options, ranging in price from an extra $723, to $5,598, if you simply must have illuminated door sills and remote starting. Check every box on the order sheet, and the CT, with shipping, lists for $40,641.
Even so, this is easily the cheapest Lexus, as the IS 250 starts at $32,645. Is the Lexus CT 200h really a Lexus, then? It also most seems like it may have been a more appropriate flagship for the Scion line, rather than the entry-lvel model for Toyota's luxury brand.
Our test CT was a Premium model, with enough options to bring the list price to $35,694. As on so many hybrids, the manufacturer felt compelled to tweak the instruments and controls to mimic a video game – there's an odd, annoying little transmission shift lever on the dashboard, and the navigation system is accessed by a mouse-like device that requires thumb-clicks to spell out a destination. Yes, it all works, but it's unnecessarily precious.
Besides the aforementioned "sport" mode for driving, there is a "normal" mode for everyday travel, and an "eco" mode that maximizes fuel savings, at the expense of some performance. There is also an "EV drive" setting that allows you to drive at low speeds, for very short distances, on electric power only. It's good for sneaking into the garage if you return home past curfew, but not much else.
The EPA rates the CT at 43 mpg city, 40 highway, and 42 combined, though I fell a few mpg short of that in my tests. Mileage isn't as good as a Prius, but the Lexus has other attributes – not the least of which is the Lexus nameplate – which make up for the mileage.
One final note: The CT 200h is built in Japan, and while Toyota is working hard to restore its facilities there, few would be surprised if the CT 200h is in short supply through the summer.
2011 Lexus CT 200h
Base price: $29,120
Price as tested: $35,694
EPA rating: 43 miles per gallon city driving, 40 mpg highway
Engine: 1.8-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine with an electric drive motor for 134 total horsepower.
Transmission: Continuously variable automatic.
Length: 170.1 Inches
Wheelbase: 102.4 inches
In a nutshell: Handsome, easy on gas, more fun to drive than a Toyota Prius, but is it really a Lexus?