August 30, 2014 at 1:00 am

Lexus CT 200H Hybrid: A thrifty reboot of the Prius

Lexus CT 200H )

People today are demanding more than mere transportation from their spanking-new cars. Sporty-looking vehicles, for example, always sell well ... but it’s thrift in the form of stellar mileage that now brings flocks of buyers to local dealerships.

One of the strongest draws is the Lexus CT 200H Hybrid, a nicely redone version of Toyota’s Prius. With real-world fuel mileage in the 40-mile-per-gallon range, there are few reasons (mostly economic) the 200H won’t have prospective buyers scrambling for their checkbooks.

Outside, the moonroof-equipped CT 200H isn’t much to look at, its strange shape dictated more by aerodynamics and governmental fuel economy standards than eye appeal. Inside, there’s plenty of room for four, though a l-o-n-g trip in the back seat isn’t to be relished. Beneath the rear hatch and standard tonneau cover there’s a surprising amount of storage. Don’t frantically search for a spare tire, though; none is provided.

Between the power-operated twin bucket vinyl front seats is an oddly shaped console, one that will securely hold your morning coffee along with the usual detritus that accumulates as time marches onward. A small unpadded glovebox faces the passenger seat, and the color-coordinated interior will please even the most particular driver. Everything is stitched together well, a hallmark of Toyota-built vehicles. (Lexus is part of Toyota.) Overhead is an “SOS” button with an automatic collision notification feature similar to General Motors’ OnStar Safety System. Airbags are everywhere; there are so many that just explaining where they are would waste half the day.

As the CT 200H Hybrid uses the Lexus brand, you can expect this 3,130-pound vehicle to be fully equipped. Power four-wheel antilock disc brakes with brake assist, electric steering, a tilt/telescope steering wheel, air conditioning, heated outside mirrors, an excellent AM/FM/HD/CD/satellite radio (a three-month trial) with USB ports, power windows and locks, a superfluous trip computer and soft-touch surfaces everywhere will make trips more pleasant.

People buy hybrids for fuel efficiency, and it’s here that the 200H excels. A smooth 134 HP 1.8 liter “four” powers this front-driver, pulling it from 0-60 in 10.6 seconds. Yes, it’s slow, but you’ll quickly grow accustomed to its quirks. Sixty-to-zero measurements showed the vehicle stopped in 128 feet, a decent showing for the class. There are knobs to put the engine in “Sport” mode and others to prevent it from shutting down at stoplights to save gas. All these, and many other similar switches, worked well. The engine itself is fairly quiet, a plus. It’s nicely refined, as it should be in a car listing for $33,000. The EPA rates it at 43 city miles per gallon and 40 on the highway (this inversion is more or less normal for a hybrid). Observed mileage was 37 city and 40 highway, numbers few will have trouble accepting.

The engine was mated to a CVT transmission, the same proven type that powers your home washing machine. You’ll hardly notice the difference between a CVT and a standard automatic. Allegedly these gearboxes deliver slightly better fuel mileage. Even repeatedly using a Belkin Accelerometer to sift out a difference showed none was discernible.

Turning to handling, the CT 200H is near best in class. Going around corners is no problem, its all-season tires gripping well under most conditions. The suspension, of course, has lots to do with this, and the car’s engineering team did a superb job of ironing out the “kinks.” They didn’t sacrifice ride, either, as this vehicle almost equals luxury car levels. You’ll never complain.

Note there are many, many options with which you can outfit this vehicle. For $900 you can purchase a factory GPS (buy a Garmin instead), rain-sensing wipers, heated front seats and more. For $3,490 you can have a back-up camera, Voice Command (remember, you must “train” this unit), a 10-speaker audio system, automatic parking assist ($500; avoid this till the technology is proven) and much more.

The CT 200H is guaranteed for four years or 50,000 miles under the warranty. There are five years and 50,000 miles on the powertrain and eight years on the vehicle’s hybrid components. You’ll undoubtably be offered an extended guarantee; study it carefully for exclusions, loopholes and deductibles before making a decision. Leasing this vehicle might, just might, make sense. Think carefully, as leasing is almost always more expensive in the long run.

Overall, this is a fine — though funny-looking — automobile. There’s no way you’ll ever save enough gas to make up for the high initial purchase price — just do the math. You must have other motives with high social significance to justify its purchase. Be sure and take a long test drive before writing your first check.