First Drive: 2011 Lexus CT 200h - The Green Hatch

 
 
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IMG_6596.JPGLexus has come a long way since the inception of the world's first premium luxury hybrid vehicle five years ago. Being the front-runner in hybrid technology, Lexus is the only luxury carmaker to offer a wide array of premium hybrid vehicles ranging from a crossover, an entry-level dedicated hybrid sedan, a performance-oriented midsize luxury sedan and an ultra-luxury flagship sedan which represents the pinnacle of the Lexus Hybrid lineup. The 2006 RX 400h was the first hybrid to start it off. Most recently, the 2010 HS 250h a.k.a. Harmonious Sedan was introduced as the most fuel-efficient Lexus and the most fuel-efficient luxury vehicle in the United States, until now.

Lexus teased us with the unveiling of the Lexus LF-Ch concept at the Frankfurt International Motor show just one year ago.  Internally dubbed "C-Premium", the sexy five door hatchback was graced with a luminescent yellow with sweeping chrome accents and aggressively fitted razor blade-like five spoke wheels. The low, wide and raked stance help translate this latest interpretation of L-Finesse as youthful, sporty and aggressive. Shortly after the unveiling in Frankfurt, Lexus USA invited enthusiasts to fill out a survey on the LF-Ch concept vehicle.

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A series of questions were asked in regards to the overall look, exterior/interior attributes, and if Lexus should build this car. It was clear the results were very positive, as the LF-Ch gave hope to something fresh and sleek for the near future. Lexus did not hesitate and gave the green light for their fifth hybrid luxury vehicle.

CT and the number FIVE

The number FIVE is a very important number for Lexus. Not only are there FIVE doors on this new vehicle, it is also the luxury hybrid number FIVE to be offered in the Lexus range. It has been FIVE years since the introduction of the first Lexus Hybrid and the need to evolve is very important for any brand. Also, according to Lexus, there are FIVE "Lexus Musts" that meets the customer's needs:

1)      Unique driving character.
2)      The dynamic and elegant interpretation of the latest L-finesse design philosophy.
3)      Outstanding manufacturing quality.
4)      Attention to detail.
5)      Renowned customer service.

All these attributes are key in the development of the CT.


CT 200h. What is it?

In 2002, Lexus first offered the IS300 Sport Cross (a.k.a. Altezza Gita in Japan) in North America. This limited-production five-door premium compact sports hatchback, even years after its demise in 2005, still attracts a devoted following. Since then, Lexus has not offered a compact five-door hatchback. The world has evolved and changed greatly over the last few years, and Lexus CT 200h offers a package that is fuel-efficient, eco-friendly and, most importantly, fun-to-drive.

The Lexus CT is the "Creative Touring" vehicle, which is a five-door premium compact "full hybrid" vehicle encompassing all of the latest Lexus techno-gadgetry. The "200h" designates the perceived displacement of a 2.0L gasoline engine combined with a hybrid system known as Lexus Hybrid Drive.


The Chief Engineer & The "Nur-meister"

The Lexus CT project was headed by TMC's Chief Engineer Osamu Sadakata. Sadakata-san was responsible in overseeing the CT's completion from start to finish. He is no stranger to Toyota as he has been with the company for nearly 30 years.  His expertise is in sound and vibration control and the development of key hybrid vehicles. In 2003, he was assigned to be the Chief Engineer for the first Lexus Hybrid, the 2006 Lexus RX 400h. This was also closely related to its Toyota cousin the Highlander Hybrid. Since Lexus was not a brand in Japan at the time, the JDM Toyota Harrier Hybrid and Kluger V Hybrid were part of that development project. In 2005, Sadakata-san became project general manager for the 2008 LS 600h. Due to his unmatched expertise in hybrids, in 2006 he assumed the role of Chief Engineer for his third Lexus Hybrid, the CT 200h. Sadakata-san, an alumnus of Shizuoka University Graduate School of Science and Engineering, has a Master's degree in precision engineering. He resides with his wife and two sons in Toyota City. Sadakata-san is more than just an engineer with a Master's degree, he is also an avid car enthusiast. On his days off, he enjoys piloting his modified 1st gen Mazda Miata around the twisty back roads. He also involves himself in local track day events racing friends and other fellow TMC chief engineers.  From time to time, he also enjoys taking his pet beagle around town in his Miata. Aside from his involvement in automobiles, he enjoys playing various sports and enjoys cooking.

The CT 200h is not just an ordinary Lexus Hybrid, it's a special and unique Lexus. Sadakata-san said although the CT and Prius share the same powertrain, they are two different vehicles. They have the same ingredients, but different chefs produce different results. Not only did Sadakata-san wanted to create a very efficient hybrid, he also wanted to create a vehicle with pure driving enjoyment. To further extrapolate the CT's driving abilities, Sadakata-san mentioned that the late Hiromu Naruse (TMC's #1 Test Driver) was instrumental in the early development of the CT 200h. Countless hours of tweaking and fine tuning for a fun-to-drive experience was one of Naruse-san's passions. Luckily, the CT 200h was one of the last projects he was able to put his golden midas touch on. Although he is gone, his legacy and passion will live forever.

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Outside

At first glance, the CT has a sleek and aggressive look. From any angle, it features a low and wide stance. Up front the car has a menacing arrowhead look. Nice aero headlights in a black housing with integrated LED running lamps replace the ugly halogen daytime running lamps. Headlamps for the CT come standard with a halogen projector beam, but those that are so inclined can opt for the cool LED low beam units similar to the flagship LS 600h. Strong lines create a bold and muscular look for the hood. The lines sweep down into the grille and helps create the framework for the signature hybrid blue L badge. Shapely fog lamp housings are molded into the lower front fascia of the CT. Strong lateral creases reminiscent of the IS F Sport sedan flow from the upper grille into the body of the front bumper. At the bottom, the integral front lip spoiler helps create downforce and channel airflow into the lower grille. A low roofline with sweeping chrome trim help carve the side windows into the body side. The rear roofline sweeps downward into an integrated rear roof spoiler on the rear hatch. The rear quarter glass wraps around into the back tailgate glass to create an illusion of one solid piece of glass. The rear quarters are flared out to help accentuate the broad-shouldered stance of the CT. The LED tail lamp lines swing upward to give the illusion of flight. Strong rear quarter body lines flow down into the rear bumper. Thanks to L-Finesse, designers were able achieve a wind cheating 0.29 Cd for the exterior.

There are several exterior colors available for the CT. Starfire Pearl (077), Tungsten Pearl (1G1), Smoky Granite Mica (1G0), Obsidian (212) and Matador Red Mica (3R1) offered throughout the Lexus lineup, are available. If you’re looking stand out, Daybreak Yellow Mica (5B1) and Fire Agate Pearl (4V3) are the newest additions to the palette and emerge as signature CT-exclusive hues.

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Inside

Leave the smart key fob in your pocket! With the Lexus Smart Key system you can unlock and open the front doors without having to press the unlock button on the key fob or use a physical key to unlock the doors. Take a seat in the driver's side, buckle up, depress the brake pedal and push the blue power switch on. You instantly notice the great seating position thanks to the eight-way power driver's seat also offers an optional Memory system as part of the Leather Package in the United States. Position is key in making the cabin a more driver-focused environment, according to Lexus. The steering column angle is situated at an optimal 21°. The driver's seat is not so low that you are literally sitting on the floor, but is positioned so that your hip point is set as close to the center of gravity as possible. The front seats are very comfortable and feature nicely-shaped bolsters which help hug your torso and legs, especially during hard cornering, but not so hard that they cause discomfort after a long period of driving. It is safe to say these seats are a lot more comfortable than the seats of the IS F.

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There are several attributes inside the CT that are inherited from the exotic flagship LFA sports car. The most obvious upon entry is the steering wheel. Not only did Lexus design a great leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel, it is closely patterned after the steering wheel found in the LFA. It features a thick, wide grip and a small diameter, perfect for maneuvering twisty roads. The wheel is even nicer than what's offered in the IS F! The wheel spokes are painted silver and control switches at 3 and 9 o'clock positions house audio and cell phone controls. Press the center of the wheel in and the "American car" sounding authoritative two-tone horn found on all Lexus models still exists.

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The low and wide dashboard houses a high-visibility pop-up screen displaying Lexus's Gen. 6 Navigation, audio and HVAC information. Just below the air vents, a backlit white LCD display shows the current time in the center, driver and passenger temperatures on each end. Buttons for the HVAC controls are large and easy to read. Controlling the telematics in the CT is like navigating your home personal computer with a mouse. On the midsection of the dash just above the glove box, you will find a silver metallic border which help enhance the wide sweeping feel of the dash. Unique to the CT, an interchangeable trim panel on the passenger side allows those to customize the look of the interior. There are four different choices which includes the standard black, a warm ash burl, a fresh looking bamboo and metal which is a mixed silver and black trim. You can trade with friends or collect all four!

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The acclaimed Remote Touch controller is placed nicely and within reach in the center console. Two deep large cup holders accommodate an array of cup sizes. The mid portion between the two deep wells is a cutout designed to fit an 8.3oz can of Red Bull. Some may dislike the cup holder design as there is no retractable cover to hide them when not in use. When resting your arm on the console, your elbow tends to fall in. There are also water bottle holders located in the door trim panels. To the rear of the console, there is a nicely padded cover in which resides a good-sized compartment to hide various items.

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The upper portion of the center console sweeps up in an angle just like in the LFA for easy access. To the right side of the Remote Touch controller, you can find the input for the Aux In and USB ports to plug in your favorite portable audio unit. You can control the operation of your iPod or MP3 player via the steering controls or Remote Touch controls once plugged into the USB port. Available later in 2011, Lexus USA will be the first to offer a cradle specifically designed to hold your favorite portable audio player or cell phone.  Two audio systems are offered in the CT. An optional 10-speaker, six disc in-dash Lexus Premium audio system and a standard 6 speaker, single disc, Lexus audio. But don't be fooled, the standard 6 speaker audio system is no slouch. It rivals the audio clarity many premium home and car audio systems. Lexus definitely didn't cut any corners in this department. New to the CT, the speaker cones are made with a bamboo charcoal based resin for top audio clarity. XM radio subscription is free for the first three months. A rearview back up camera is available on both nav and non-nav models.

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The Chassis

The CT 200h (ZWA10) is an all-new chassis which is derived from Toyota Motor Corporation's (TMC) flexible MC platform riding on a 2600mm wheelbase. Under the lightweight aluminum hood, power comes from a combination of an Atkinson cycle 1.8L 4 cylinder engine producing 98HP and an electric motor producing 80HP which equates to a total output of 134HP. An electronically-controlled continuously variable transmission (ECVT) is responsible for regulating the 2ZR-FXE (1.8L 4cyl w/Hybrid) power to the front wheels. The need for premium fuel is unnecessary as 87-octane gas is what the CT calls for.  Electrical power is stored in the Ni-MH battery which hides neatly behind the rear passengers under the cargo floor. Four drive modes create a unique and engaging driving experience not found in other hybrid vehicles on the market. There is a normal, eco, full electric EV, and sport mode which transforms the dynamics of the CT.  True, the powertrain in the CT 200h is also utilized in the 3rd generation Prius. However the similarities end there.

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Instead of using a MacPherson strut front end and an axle beam rear suspension like in the Prius, the CT rides on a 4-wheel independent suspension for better driving feel and comfort. There are MacPherson struts in the front and double wishbones in the rear. To further increase the CT's vibration dampening and stability, liquid filled lateral performance dampers are installed on the front upper shock mounts connecting the suspension towers and at the rear between the trailing edges of the body. A speed-sensitive electric power steering rack with a quick 14.6:1 ratio allows the driver great feedback for maneuvering the CT. An electric power steering (EPS) type system is used to further aid improved fuel economy in comparison to an inefficient power fluid-type rack. Four wheel disc brakes with ABS help bring the CT to a safe and controlled stop. A regenerative braking system helps charge up the Ni-MH batteries in the rear. Standard are four 17x7 inch wheels, wrapped in low rolling resistance, all-season high performance V rated Michelin Primacy MXM4 215/45R17 tires.

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Transforming the CT in Four Ways

In the past, driving a hybrid was simply a matter of putting the key in the ignition, turning the car on, put the car in drive, step on the accelerator and you're off. The car quietly moves forward as the engine comes alive to assist the electric motors. No gear changes, no redline to worry about as the continuously variable transmission selects an optimal drive pattern for you. Sure, it gets you from point A to point B, but it's hardly the basis for an engaging driving experience, Lexus' solution for the driving blahs is the drive mode selector whose four distinct drive modes are unique to the CT 200h and build significantly upon the similar but less comprehensive drive mode selector pioneered by Lexus' own HS 250h .

Just above the Remote Touch unit on the console, you can find the silver circular drive mode dial. Reminiscent of the drive mode dial in the LFA, you can change the driving dynamics of the CT to your desired taste. Twist the blue-backlit dial counter clockwise and you go into ECO mode. Throttle response is reduced but it maximizes the efficiency of the hybrid system by regulating the use of the air conditioner in certain driving conditions. Twist the dial clockwise, and watch the drive selector dial change from blue to red. The normal blue backlight of the dash cluster and ambient overhead lighting changes from blue to red, the hybrid system gauge on the cluster transforms into a tachometer, steering feel and resistance becomes a bit firmer, the stability control parameters adjust, and throttle response increases as 650v of electric power is ready for action. You have now entered SPORT mode. For a relaxed driving experience, press the dial inward and the tachometer reverts back into a hybrid system gauge, the ambient red glowing from the cluster and the overhead lighting simultaneously change back to a tantalizing cool blue. You are now back to NORMAL mode.  If you want to drive strictly on electric and go zero emissions, you can do to 28mph and up to 1 mile of driving before the gasoline engine kicks in. The EV mode button is adjacent to the left of the drive selector dial. Similar to the LFA, specific drive modes in the CT change the dynamics of vehicle drivability. Not only do you see a visual change in the gauge cluster, you physically feel the change in driving characteristics. This is a welcome enhancement for the CT and, hopefully, a change that will make its way to future Lexus models

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Europe vs. United States

A select group of journalists was invited by Lexus to check out and drive the CT 200h in its natural habitat, the picturesque French countryside just northeast of Paris, France. We were able to experience the CT on various types of road conditions including country two-lane roads, bumpy cobblestone streets, a plethora of traffic circles and, of course, high-speed expressway driving. The spectacular scenery consisted of endless fields, rich marshlands, tree-lined roads,  historic small towns and majestic castles built in the 16th century. We had the opportunity of driving both Euro and US-Spec CT 200h models in France. All CT 200h cars are manufactured in Japan at the Toyota Motor Kyushu, Kokura plant, the world's first plant dedicated to hybrid vehicles. Overall, both versions are the same other than key exterior and interior differences.

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For example, on the outside, Euro CTs were ordered with no moonroofs, but the US CTs were. Euro CTs have no amber side markers in the headlamps, but they are mandatory for the US. The Euro CTs have the option of factory tinted privacy glass for all windows behind the front passengers, whereas in the US, only vehicles legally considered trucks by their manufacturers can have this.

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Euro CTs have a rear foglamp located on the left taillight that is sadly missing for the U.S. They also can operate the foglamps separately from the headlamps in contrast to US CTs that only allow operation of the fogs when the headlamps are on. Outside rearview mirrors on Euro CT have a built-in convex blind spot sections on the extremities of the glass. In the US, we get the familiar passenger side "objects in mirror are closer than they appear" disclaimer. For 2011, all US-spec vehicles delete the Lexus nameplate on the left rear, since brand recognition is strong enough that the central "Circle L" logo suffices to identify the marque. All other world markets will keep the Lexus nameplate on the left rear. There are many other differences that weren't covered here, but that may be entertained in a future write up.

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On the inside, it's obvious that Euro CTs utilize the metric system of measurement where the US uses a combination of standard and metric measurements. Instead of seeing a F for full or E for empty on the gas guage, Euro CT's gas gauge reads 1/1 as full and R as empty. US CTs come standard with NuLuxe synthetic leather seating available in 3 different colors, while, in contrast, Euro CTs get a selection of five different cloth interiors as standard issue. Genuine leather seating will be optional on CTs worldwide. A drawback I noticed was that heated seating was the only option available for the front seats. It would be nice to see a ventilated option found on other Lexus models, but I suspect seat packaging did not allow for it.

There was a good mix of CTs with the Lexus Gen 6 nav, but because of the different mapping software, the US Spec CTs with nav were retrofitted with Euro-based Garmin units on the windshield. If you opened up the nav map in the US car, it would give you an arrow with a blank map to nowhere. This is because US nav maps are sourced through Denso USA while Euro nav maps are sourced through Aisin Europe. Both maps use the same Lexus Gen 6 architecture but Euro nav maps offer both a 3D and 2D view. We in the US only get 2D. No fair!

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Aside from the continental differences, the driving experience in all the CTs are identical. Like any Lexus hybrid, starting up the vehicle is quiet and without any starter noise. You turn the ignition on, put it in drive and go. Watch the needle on the speedometer climb as you're monitoring the hybrid system gauge to float in the optimal ECO zone. In the European Union, measurement of the lowest CO2 emissions is important. Due to the laws in different European countries, you are taxed according to the amount of CO2 emissions your vehicle emits. In contrast, we in the US are obsessed with obtaining the best MPGs. It's not a matter of being taxed by the government, but more about how much tax you are paying for each gallon of gas you put in the tank. Hypermiling is what all hybrid owners brag about. With the CT, the EPA estimates a combined 42 mpg of mixed, 42 city and 41 hwy. We all know EPA estimates are underestimated, and I expect to see Prius-like mileage ranging from the high 40, low 50 mpg range.

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The Drive

When you first start accelerating, the CT is very quiet and serene. It pulls away like an electric powered golf cart. You can tell when the 2ZR-FXE kicks in as you hear the engine revs climb. Engine noise is not obtrusive but is a tad louder than the 2AZ-FXE (2.4L 4cyl) engine found in the big brother HS. The four drive modes of the CT can be selected while the vehicle is stopped or while in motion. Throughout the drive I found myself using a mixed use of ECO and SPORT modes on various portions of French roadways.

When driving through the small towns, the CT would transition nicely into EV mode. The nice packaging of the CT makes driving down tight alleyways and maneuvering around parked cars a breeze. It is nimble around corners and stable when you push it hard. If you push the CT hard in turns, the car will behave quite well despite the fact that it's a front wheel drive car. The ride is very compliant on all types of road conditions but it can be a little stiff for some as the suspension is tuned for a sporty nimble feel. You almost forget that you're driving a hybrid car.

Steering at low speeds is not overly assisted, but does feel a little numb. In SPORT mode, the steering feedback is noticeable as it feels a tad heavier. ECO or NORMAL mode will do just fine if you're cruising down the highway at high speeds.. If you feel the need to pass a slow car or big rig, regardless of mode, you can floor the pedal to utlize all 650v of power with the 1.8L 4 cyl engine. SPORT mode allows for greater throttle response as sensitivity increases at all pedal positions. The 134 hp 2ZR-FXE 1.8L is plenty for all-around driving, but it may not satisfy those with a need for speed.

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What I've Noticed

There are very few pet peeves I have with the CT, but luckily some of these can be changed through the beauty of the aftermarket world. For example, the usage of incandescent bulbs for the license plate lamps were selected instead of the low wattage high power LED license lamps which first made their appearance on the 3rd Generation GS. It became a signature look in which BMW eventually copied. The front cup holders although very versatile, should have a retractable lid to slide over when not in use. That way, occupant elbows don't fall in while you're resting your arm on the console. Lastly, the use of the outdated Toyota green backlighting utilized on the center console buttons. For as long as I've been alive, majority of Toyota vehicles have used a soft green backlight for the instrument panel. It apparently is designed this way as it is easier on the eyes in darker conditions. Sadly, having the green backlighting on the console mixed in with the gorgeous white backlit speedometer cluster and the center LCD clock & HVAC display's white lighting creates something of a clash. If it were up to me, the backlighting would all be matching white or even a soothing light blue akin to the instrument lighting in the Normal and Eco driving modes.

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Endless Possibilities.

The CT's chassis, although a full hybrid, has the potential of being a "hot hatch". The CTs chassis is perfect for a turbo-charged non-hybrid 4 cylinder engine with a 6 speed manual transmission. It would be great to see larger displacement engine choices, perhaps a CT 300h with a future 2.5L 4 cyl with Lexus Synergy Drive or maybe even a high horsepower CT F with a 3.5L V6  and Lexus Synergy Drive. The CT's suspension would benefit from an Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS) system so settings can be tuned to soften or stiffen the ride on the fly. This would definitely be a welcome addition to the CT's SPORT mode.

Lexus USA will be offering an array of F-Sport performance enhancements for the CT 200h. There will be an optional F-Sport wheel package which is inspired by the wheel design from the LF-Ch concept. An F-Sport suspension package will be offered to enhance the feel and lower the stance of the CT. This may be an indicator of what's to come as the F-Sport line is slowly making its presence on other Lexus models outside the IS and GS.

The CT 200h, although designed for the European market, has a great recipe for success in the US. The CT features great looks, an aggressive stance and promising factory and aftermarket customization abilities, all in a very sleek package. The CT 200h will be perfect for those who are ready to graduate from their Scions and Toyota Priuses or those looking to buy their first upscale hybrid. For me, I'll take a CT 200h in Starfire Pearl with a Black NuLuxe interior, Audio and Moonroof + Navigation Package, LED headlamps, F-Sport suspension and some nice aftermarket 18" wheels, please. :)

A very special thank you goes out to the gracious folks at Lexus USA. They are responsible for providing us with this unforgettable experience.

Article & Photos by: Flipside909

Photo Galleries of The CT 200h Global Press Event in Paris: CT 200h Press Event Day 1 & CT 200h Press Event Day 2

Forum discussion: Car Chat - First Drive: Lexus CT 200h - The Green Hatch

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Dimitar Dobrev (Tue, 12 Jun 2012 12:27:39 -0700): Колата е страхотна, пожелавам я на всеки фен!