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Small-Car Luxury Comes Clean

The 2011 Lexus CT 200h

The first hybrid cars available in North America, the quirky-looking Honda Insight and the ho-hum-looking Toyota Prius, were, technology notwithstanding, nothing to write home about. I mean they were (are still, in the case of the Prius) competent people movers. The Insight wasn’t something you’d ever have trouble finding in the mall parking lot, but wasn’t very practical as a people/people’s stuff-mover, what with its two seats and limited cargo area. The Prius was just the opposite. Roomy for the family with a regular-sized cargo area, but stylistically challenged.

But that was then, and this is now. The newest Insight is now a “regular-looking” car. Actually, it’s just as regular-looking as the latest Prius and from a block away you might have trouble telling which is which. Now though, there are other hybrid choices. One of the nicest is the new Lexus CT 200h. Although its name doesn’t evoke much excitement—what ever happened to actually naming a car?—the CT 200h is probably the face of the future. Compact, luxurious, handsome. Hard to find anything wrong with that mix.

The CT 200h is about the size of Toyota’s Matrix, making it a compact in the true sense of the word. It officially seats five, but I hope that fifth person is either a rail-thin model or a middle-schooler. The back seats fold down 60/40 for those days when you need to carry stuff instead of people. Head and leg room are pretty much what you’d expect in a compact—I’m a six-footer and was comfortable enough in both the front and the back seat. And not only are they comfy, but—hey, come on, this is a Lexus—they really look good. You might just think it’s leather from looking at it, but, guess again. On second thought, I doubt if you’d guess what the seating material is. How does “NuLuxe” grab you? It’s lighter than real leather, and Lexus claims that its manufacturing process generates 65 percent fewer CO2 emissions than traditional synthetic leathers, and no VOCs. I’m sure, although I’m only guessing, that’s it’s also cheaper than real leather, and no animals were harmed in the production of these seats. Real leather, before you go all “Yeah, PETA!” is available also. As are two different wood grains (including my favorite, a very attractive bamboo).

This is a hybrid so I’m sure you’re wondering about the powertrain. Here’s where the name “Prius” creeps into the conversation again. I guess it doesn’t so much “creep” as it jumps right out in front of you and yells “Boo!” Yes, the CT 200h shares the Prius’ powertrain. And that’s certainly not a bad thing. It’s currently driving the most popular, road-tested hybrid car in the world, and a gazillion drivers can’t be all-wrong. The internal combustion engine, which drives the front wheels, is a 1.8-liter, in-line, four-cylinder rated at 98 horsepower, attached to a continuously variable transmission (no manual is offered). And there’s a high-output, permanent magnet 80-horsepower electric drive motor complementing the gas-powered engine. EPA gas mileage estimates are 43/40 miles per gallon city/highway. City driving in a hybrid such as the CT 200h is actually more economical due to the fact that at a standstill—waiting for a signal to turn green, for example—the gas-powered engine shuts off. When that light turns green and you step on the accelerator, the electric motor whisks you away until the gas engine kicks in at around 15 miles per hour. There’s also an economy mode you can manually switch on which will allow you to stay in all-electric mode up to 25 miles per hour if you’re doing a lot of city driving.

All-in-all, the CT 200h is a nice alternative. Perhaps a bit pricey—starting at $29,995. But it’ might just be the best of both (three?) worlds: economical compact luxury.

Read more of Jim Corbran's You Auto Know every other week in Artvoice, and more frequently on Artvoice Daily.

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