First Drive: 2011 Lexus CT 200h

Lexus Tries To Build A Better European Luxury Hatchback

2011 Lexus CT 200h, front 2011 Lexus CT 200h, rear

Out on the motorway we settle into a comfortable 75 mph cruise and begin to take stock of the interior. The leather-wrapped LFA-inspired steering wheel is right-sized for the application, and we're particularly fond of the inboard Mode and Display buttons positioned at thumb-level. The normal cadre of redundant switches for volume, channel and phone functions are easy to read and manipulate, as is the center-mounted climate control stack.

Directly to the right is a real bamboo slice trimming the dash ahead of the passenger. The CT 200h comes standard with a black plastic piece in its place, but it can be swapped out in favor of ash burl, metal or the aforementioned sustainable wood. The trim choice tied in nicely with the caramel "NuLuxe" synthetic leather on our tester, offering an environmentally friendly alternative to the optional black or gray cow hide.

2011 Lexus CT 200h interior 2011 Lexus CT 200h leather 2011 Lexus CT 200h bamboo 2011 Lexus CT 200h seat leather

We've never been particularly fond of Lexus' choice of layout and materials for its center stack, however, and little has changed with the CT 200h. For some reason, their choices have somehow always come across as "less-than" when compared to the equivalent Germans. Our tester wasn't equipped with sat-nav, so you'll notice a large panel where the optional mouse-like RemoteTouch interface would normally reside. We did have a few minutes to play with the system before embarking on our adventure, and as it's the same unit found on the RX CUV, there were no surprises with its functionality or ease-of-use – it's simple and intuitive.

Another feature that wasn't included on our tester, but will be fitted to every U.S.-bound CT 200h, is a new Universal Device Holder – essentially a stand for your smartphone that rises up from the transmission tunnel. The holder can fit nearly every device – from the iPhone to the EVO – to display streaming audio and navigation instructions. As we've said before, factory sat-navs are quickly losing their appeal as a new breed of smartphones offer nearly all of the features at a fraction of the cost. Our pick: We'd skip the Audio and Moonroof + Navigation package, tick the boxes for the Audio and Moonroof + Backup Camera (mounted in the rearview mirror) and pony up for a navigation app for your mobile phone. And if you're feeling frisky with the option boxes, the Leather Package with driver's seat memory, heated front chairs and auto-dimming outside mirrors should be well worth the initial investment considering the estimated starting price of just over $30,000.

But above-average materials and the expected appointments will only get you so far in this segment.

2011 Lexus CT 200h driving

About 30 minutes later, we're finally on the outskirts of Paris and it's obvious the CT's suspension tuning has been canted towards the comfortable side of sporty. Not a bad thing when trying to eat up the miles. On the highway, it's been a decidedly Prius-like affair – completely expected considering it shares both major platform components and its Atkinson-cycle 1.8-liter four-cylinder with the flagship green machine from Toyota. In addition to the four-pot with its 98 horsepower (at 5,200 rpm) and 105 pound-feet of torque (at 4,000 rpm), two electric motors are fed by 28 Ni-MH batteries to churn out an additional 36 hp. That diminutive grunt finds its way to the front wheels through two sets of planetary gears that essentially act as a CVT, sans the bands. While that's great for efficiency, having an engine droning at a constant 5,500 rpm when flooring the throttle doesn't provide much in the way of aural excitement. And it packs the motivation to match.

By the time we hit Paris proper and begin winding our way through mid-morning traffic, the CT 200h begins to come into its own. The slightly stiffer springs, along with its Prius-sourced (albeit modified) MacPherson front suspension, Avenis chassis components and HS 250h double A-arm rear suspension work in concert to dull the combination of marginally neglected pavement and cobblestone streets. Within minutes, we're illegally parked outside Ladurée, where I run in, order two of everything and then sprint back to the car. A few moments later and we're out of town, making our way back onto the Lexus-prescribed drive route and some much-needed rural roads.

Lexus CT 200h driving in Paris

Here, the CT 200h's aptitude is entirely a product of your expectations. After the Honda CR-Z barely delivered on its "sporty hybrid" mission statement, Lexus appears to be dialing back its spin about the CT 200h being " the dark side of green." And understandably. All of the dynamic Lexus hallmarks are present: slightly anesthetized steering, marginally mushy brakes, a bit of body roll and a general lack of enthusiasm for being pushed too hard. But it's far better than most hybrids. The suspension does impart a general sense of what's going on at all four corners and its innovative Performance Damper – essentially a front strut bar with a shock in the middle – reduces flex while keeping things comfortable from both a ride and NVH standpoint.

Although the weight distribution is an admirable (for a front-driver) 60:40 front-to-rear thanks to the packaging and placement of the batteries, relentless understeer is still the order du jour unless you're lifting abruptly mid-bend. That might be marginally rectified by replacing the U.S.-spec all-seasons with the European car's summer rubber, and since Lexus is already planning to offer a range of F Sport suspension components after the CT 200h goes on sale next year, it's obviously aware that a little bit of tuning should go a long way. (Don't be surprised to see at least a few of the primped and pimped hatches lining the halls of SEMA this year.)

Lexus CT 200h, rear 3/4

Twisting the console-mounted knob out of Normal and into Sport does remove some of the restriction on the gas pedal and boosts the electric motor assist from 500 to 650 volts, but the advertised increase in steering feel is minimal at best. All things considered, the most impressive feature in Sport mode – by far – is the tachometer, which replaces the Power/Eco/Charge dial on the left side of the IP. The panel switches from the standard blue backlighting to red, and while it's not revolutionary – particularly after experiencing the LFA's impressive configurable dash – it's a novel bit of kit that's sure to impress the CT 200h's audience. But what else are they interested in?

If you're looking for a Euro-flavored premium hatch with the allure of a hybrid badge and the fuel economy to match (42 mpg city/41 mpg highway), the CT 200h is, frankly, your only option. Its inherit sportiness is questionable, but if you're moving up from a Prius – which Lexus fully expects some of its buyers to do – then it's more than capable of elevating your pulse, if just a few BPM. If nothing else, this Lexus makes for a great European pastry delivery machine – even if they are available right as you check-in at the airport.

Photos copyright ©2010 Damon Lavrinc / AOL

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