« Hany Farid, photography forensics | Main | For-profit colleges that leave students with crushing debt. »

Middle class economy car: make less than $85k, drive an economy car

famous Prius owners just like driving a 50 m.p.g. hybrid even if they could commute via yacht and helipad. And even for many middle-class converts, the Prius's $26,000 median price is hardly a burden: Toyota figures the average Prius household pulls in nearly $83,000 a year, which is rather high for an economy car.

Those figures help to illuminate Toyota's logic behind the 2011 Lexus CT 200h. Is this deluxe hybrid hatchback a better car than the Prius? You bet. Is it really worth an extra $7,000 or $8,000? For a bargain hunter, no. But for a certain well-heeled, light-footed buyer, the Lexus should be a painless stretch.

The CT 200h won't quite match the Prius's mileage, but at a robust 44 miles per gallon in my own combined city and highway driving, it's close enough. And despite its pokey Prius-based hybrid system, the Lexus gives people good reasons to move up.

The CT is more luxurious, more quiet and feels more solidly put together. And its distinctive design, inside and out, may attract two types of customers: bored Prius owners who want something new, and people who crave high mileage but wouldn't be caught dead in a Prius, for either its econobox vibe or its granola image.

To make the body more rigid, Lexus bolts on a pair of "lateral performance dampers," an industry first designed with Yamaha. Instead of a solid link between suspension components -- such as a strut-tower brace that spans the left and right shock absorbers -- Lexus connects them with a hydraulic mount that limits body roll in turns and quells vibrations over bumps. As in the Lexus HS 250h hybrid sedan, the CT 200h also adopts a double-wishbone rear suspension, a slicker design than the Prius's torsion-beam arrangement.

But unlike the homely HS, whose sales have fallen short of expectations, the CT 200h is a striking, daringly styled hatchback -- a description not often associated with the conservative styling studios of Toyota or Lexus.

The Lexus projects confidence from any angle, from its wind-carved prow to its teardrop roof and the jaunty epaulets of its rear fenders. It also looks appropriately expensive, something that's not easy for a compact car to pull off. The CT's rich appearance easily matches the BMW 1 Series or the Audi A3.

Terrific paint never hurts, and my test car featured a color-shifting shade of purple-brown called Fire Agate Pearl.

Some previous Lexus hybrids, like the LS 600h L and GS 450h sedans, promised to revolutionize hybrids by offering the three-way benefits of luxury, performance and stingy mileage, but succeeded only on the luxury front. The LS, priced up to $120,000, became one of the epic sales failures of recent years.

The CT 200h's claims to sportiness also turn out to be marketing hoopla. Yet this Lexus is a much more legitimate hybrid proposition, because it nails two of the three attributes, with genuine luxury and high mileage.

Making a Hipper Hybrid by Gilding the Prius
Published: June 3, 2011
The Lexus CT 200h does not match the Prius's mileage, but it comes close. The CT is also more luxurious and feels more solidly put together than the Prius.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)