First Ride

We check out the 2011 Lexus CT 200h in Europe

2011 Lexus CT 200h prototype – Click above for high-res image gallery

Toyota is no stranger to being first – Japanese luxury vehicles and hybrids chief among them. Although Acura may have launched earlier, Lexus remains the only Japanese luxury marque to market in Japan. And having launched in Europe shortly after America, Lexus was also the first to challenge the European heavyweights on their home turf, and with its LS and LFA, it remains the only non-European marque to compete at the top level.

Credit Toyota, as well, for popularizing hybrid technology, as it launched the Prius domestically as the first mass-produced gas-electric, whereupon it has dominated the market with successive generations. But where the Japanese auto giant has really stood apart is in the combination of both luxury and hybrid technology.

Recognizing the technology's popularity with upscale buyers, Lexus has carved out a niche in producing luxury hybrids. In fact, its lineup in many European markets is comprised exclusively of hybrids. The HS 250h launched late last year as the world's first dedicated luxury hybrid model and now Lexus is branching out again by electrifying territory previously uncharted by Japanese automakers: the premium hatchback segment. We flew out to Toyota's European headquarters to see how development of the new CT 200h has been coming along. Follow the jump to see what we found.

Photos by Noah Joseph / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

Brussels may serve as the capital for Belgium, NATO and the European Union, but on the city's outskirts in Zaventem sits the headquarters of another global powerhouse: Toyota Motor Europe. The 26,000-square-meter facility coordinates research and development, purchasing and production engineering for Toyota's European operations. Having acquired the former Mercedes-Benz facility next-door, TME Zevantem is undergoing a nearly $100 million dollar expansion to incorporate a dedicated test track. The extension will add 250 to the 750-strong workforce, and allow TME to test prototypes and benchmark the competition on site, reducing the necessity to rent track time from facilities in Spain or Ford's compound upstate in Lommel – or fly out to Toyota's own tracks in Japan.

TME Zaventem also served as the location for our preview of the upcoming Lexus CT 200h. Initially unveiled as the LF-Ch concept last year at the Frankfurt Motor Show, the CT 200h debuted in pre-production form in Geneva a few months ago and is now in the "European Conformity" phase, meaning that it's nearing completion and is presently undergoing final refinements and certification. Initial impressions from the show floor assessed the CT's styling as rather similar to the Toyota Auris, but as you can see from the photos from Zaventem, the Lexus looks both sportier and classier than its budget counterpart.

The CT will be a vital product for Lexus, especially in the European market where the "Premium C" segment accounts for a large share of the luxury market. Japan has, until now, left the segment to their European rivals, but can afford to overlook it no longer. When the CT hits the market later this year, it will take on the likes of the Audi A3, BMW 1 Series, Volvo C30, Alfa Giulietta and, notably, rumored upcoming entries from Acura and Infiniti.

Premium hatchbacks are also beginning to catch on in North America, where customers are awakening to the notion that luxury needn't equate with size, and where rising fuel prices and environmental conscience boost hybrids' popularity. Geography aside, the CT will give Lexus a gateway product to entice younger buyers and retain existing customers looking for something smaller.

What will set the CT apart from its rivals, of course, is its gasoline-electric drivetrain. Lexus Hybrid Drive couples an electric motor to a 1.8-liter four-cylinder driving through a single variable gear to the front wheels. Official output figures haven't been released, but expect about 140 horsepower. As we discovered in the briefing and during a ride in the capable hands of Toyota's European and Japanese engineers, Lexus has placed considerable emphasis on both refinement and vehicle dynamics to add sportiness to the luxury hybrid equation.

Emblematic of this sporty emphasis is the incorporation of the Performance Damper. Linking the MacPherson strut suspension towers up front, and the trailing-arm double wishbones around back, the Performance Dampers reduce vibration and muffle noise, crucially allowing Toyota to strengthen chassis rigidity without sacrificing the superior NVH refinement expected of a Lexus. The dampers were developed by Yamaha, and though applied previously on some limited-production JDM sports models, they are integrated into the CT's design as an unprecedented mass-market export. The CT also stands as the lightest model Lexus has ever produced, the sportiest model this side of the LFA and IS-F, and with a drag coefficient of 0.28, the most aerodynamically efficient in its class.

The vehicle dynamics are further enhanced by the low seating position, aggressive bolsters and the thick rim on the upright steering wheel. The party trick, though, is the knob on the center console that controls both the hybrid drive mode and performance dynamics, changing the throttle mapping, level of electric boost, stability management and traction control when turned from Normal or Eco mode to Sport, which simultaneously switches the dashboard illumination from blue to red and the electric charge meter to a tachometer. And of course, the CT incorporates all the latest advancements in safety technology, from the energy-absorbing body and pedestrian-protection hood to the pre-crash system and eight airbags, all of which has already helped the CT achieve top safety ratings in Europe, Japan and the United States.

Riding along suburban roads near the TME facility, the CT 200h – even in prototype guise – is suitably Lexus-like in its build quality and refinement, yet surprisingly aggressive in its handling. The ride feels well balanced in its damping between comfort and sportiness, and given the instant torque delivery inherent in the electric boost, it never seemed to lack for punch... from the passenger seat, at least. We'll reserve final judgment until we can get behind the wheel of a completed production model ourselves, but for the moment, one message rings loud and clear: This is not your mother's Prius.

Photos by Noah Joseph / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

Lexus CT 200h Information

Lexus CT 200h

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