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2011 Lexus CT 200h: Finally, a Prius with style

Hybrid mileage meets classy good looks
by: LEXUS MOTORS High mileage and sporty lines meet in the 2011 Lexus CT 200h

For automotive enthusiasts, the 2011 Lexus CT 200h is the best Toyota Prius ever.

Since it was first introduced in 1997, the Prius has been embraced by environmentally-conscious buyers as the most practical high-mileage car on the planet. It features Toyota's patented Hybrid Synergy Drive system, which switches between a small gas engine and electric motor to maximize economy. As a result, a Prius consistently gets around 50 miles per gallon, even though it can five adults and a week's worth of groceries in comfort.

But not in style. The Prius has consistently been one of the most boring looking cars ever designed, both insider and out. Toyota apparently believes Prius owners are more concerned about saving fuel than looking good or piloting a real driver's car.

Nor is the Prius much of a performer. Acceleration is pokey at best, even in the Sport mode. Even worse, flooring the gas pedal raises a racket under the hood with only a gradual increase in speed. And the handling can best be described as adequate. It floats over broken pavement OK but does not encourage anything resembling spirited driving.

To its credit, Toyota has recognized that some buyers interested in fuel economy are put off by these limitations. With everyone from Chevy to Ford to Hyundai stepping up their high mileage game, Toyota has decided to do something about them. More than something, in fact. A lot. Over the next few years, the company will feature the car's proven drivetrain in a series of new and more interesting cars - beginning with the CT 200h produced and sold by Lexus, it's upscale brand.

A quick glance is all it takes to know the 2011 Lexus CT 200h is a much sportier car than the Prius. A five-door hatchback with a large air dam and flowing lines, it resembles the popular Mazda3 hatchback, one of the hotter small cars today. More upscale than a Mazda, of course - it's a Lexus, after all - but definitely aiming at younger buyers than the Prius.

The interior is also more driver-oriented, with a wrap-around dash, high center console and contoured bucket seats. The odd Prius shift lever is better integrated into the dash, too. Our test car included option packages that featured upgraded leather on the seats, a premium stereo, a navigation system and a rear view camera. The result was a car we looked forward to driving every day.

The handling is also greatly approved over the Prius. The steering is more precise and the suspension is firmer, making it far more responsive and fun to drive on twisty roads.

But because the powerplant is lifted straight from the Prius, acceleration in the same. Toyota has not changed the relationship between the gas engine and electric motor. Nor has it altered the Electronically-Controlled Continuously Variable Transmission. As a result, the Lexus CT 200h is as slow as a Toyota Prius.

And yet, during a week of driving, we did not mind as much. Wrapped in so much luxury and style, we found the acceleration much easier to live with. Instead of slow, we found ourselves thinking it was deliberate. The additional insulation also helped. Although the hybrid system was still noisy when pressed, it was reduced to a low moan instead of a loud chatter.

Call us vain, but the Lexus strengths outweigh the weaknesses of the Prius in our mind.

One thing that was not weakness was mileage. We averaged 45 miles per gallon during a week of driving that included a round trip from Portland to Eugene and plenty of in-town trips. Our gas bill was a third of what we usually spend, even though we drove farther than usual.

Consumer Report types can find a few things to complain about with the Lexus CT 200h. There is less interior room, especially in the back seat and cargo area. And the price is several thousand dollars higher than a Prius, which is already several thousand dollars higher than an equivalent gas-powered car.

But the Lexus CT 200h isn't meant to compete with the Prius. It's intended to appeal to a whole new group of potential buyers, younger people of means who still value fuel economy. And it succeeds in that purpose.

For those who like the styling of the Lexus CT 200h but find the price too high, Toyota is planning to release a similarly-designed smaller Prius in the near future called the Prius c. Before that, the company will be selling a station wagon version of the Prius called the Prius c aimed at families. They are both part of Toyota's plan to increase the appeal of its thrifty Hybrid Synergy Drive system to those who are concerned about more than just fuel economy, as important as that may be.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2011 CT 200h.

• Manufacturer: Lexus.

• Class: Premium midsize.

• Layout: Front engine/motor, front-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five-door hatchback.

• Powerplant: 1.8-liter 98 hp inline four-cylinder engine and 36 hp electric motor (134 hp total).

• Transmission: Electronically-controlled Continuously Variable Transmission.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 43/40.

• Price: Beginning at $30,900 ($37,024 as tested).