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Brandon Seiler's Blog on Cars

Archive for May 2012

Lexus CT 200h F Sport

Wearing the F Sport badge while rocking the same powertrain as a Prius gives the Lexus CT 200h a mixed bag of credentials to say the least. The concept of a “performance hybrid” is still regarded as more of an oxymoron than anything else, and for good reason.

But is the CT 200h really trying to posture itself as a sporty hybrid hatchback?

Consider the raw numbers. As mentioned above the 200h uses the same 134hp hybrid system found in the Prius. Each car reaches 60mph in 9.8 seconds. Those aren’t the sort of numbers that will throw Doc Brown back in his seat and leave a set of flaming tire marks on the ground.

Without digging much deeper it’s safe to say Lexus wasn’t very concerned with blowing the doors off a Volkswagen GTI or Subaru Impreza hatchback. In fact those cars aren’t even on the 200h’s radar. At its core Lexus is a luxury brand.

Starting at just under $30,000 the CT 200h is aimed at the burgeoning entry-level luxury market. With 43mpg city, 40mpg highway (only 8mpg less combined than the Prius) it boasts the best fuel economy in the segment.

Impressive as those numbers are they run the risk of losing their luster when compared to the 200h’s real competition: Audi A3, BMW 1 Series and Volvo C30. None of these cars come close to matching the 200h’s fuel economy but all will run circles around it any day of the week.

That isn’t to say there isn’t a healthy degree of fun to be had in the 200h. Using the same double A-arms found in the HS 250h, the suspension was retuned for sportier driving with a Yamaha front and rear damping system that firms up ride quality and reduces body vibration. 

An optional F Sport package includes a tuned suspension, 17-inch wheels, mesh grill, larger rear spoiler, aluminum sport pedals and F Sport badging that insists sporty hybrids are sports cars too.

The first time I sat behind the wheel of the 200h, before pushing the start button to hear the soft hum of hybrid power, it gave every impression of being a car that was destined to have 300hp at the front wheels and an aggressive suspension to do battle with an Impreza STI – gas mileage be-damned.

In the driver’s seat the cabin fits like a glove. The steering wheel has the feel of a meaty performance car, the well-bolstered seats hold you snug in place. Switching to Sport mode cranks up the RPM’s, tightens steering response and increases battery thrust from 500 to 600 volts. The stability and traction control back off to allow for a bit more reckless abandon here and there.

When kept in Sport mode the car’s unimpressive power is far less noticeable, especially around town where there’s not enough room to wait for the Prius-esque acceleration to rear its eco-friendly head on a long freeway onramp. 

That said, even when mashing the accelerator to the floor like a burning bag left on a front porch it’s hard to manage much less than 35mpg.

Handling is a mixture of what you should expect from a Lexus combined with hints of Toyota. It gets the job done in style and lives up to luxury segment standards but isn’t set up to handle any more fun than the synergy drive can muster.

By hybrid standards the 200h is by all means near the top the fun factor list. The closest comparable rival could be the 2012 Honda CR-Z hybrid. Then again, nether car is going to completely satisfy an enthusiast who doesn’t want to compromise performance for fuel efficiency.

Those who are willing to spend a bit more time at the pump in exchange for more jollies behind the wheel should look to the Audi A3 TDI, another fuel-efficient entry level luxury car starting at close to $30,000. The A3 bests the Lexus with 140hp and 236 ft-lb of torque. 

On the comparative downside the A3 only manages 30mpg city, 42mpg highway for a combined estimate of 34mpg, or about the worst you can expect to get out of the 200h.

There lies the rub. In the entry-level luxury market buyers who want performance versus outstanding gas mileage would be better suited to look towards the cars mentioned above to quench their sports car needs.

Drawing on Lexus F-Sport and Prius DNA, the CT 200h deserves a serious look for anyone who wants best in class fuel economy and just enough thrills to keep themselves entertained during a week’s commute.

In the end, regardless of how much sport the F-Sport badge can exude from the 200h, most people still buy a hybrid to save gas and the planet, not because their supposed to be fun to drive.

Looking at it that way the 200h goes above and beyond the call of duty. That’s what a luxury car is supposed to do.

Lexus CT 200h slideshow:

Little Prius C has big urban appeal

In its own special way the Prius C is one of the most exciting cars of the summer. Small cars are in, fuel prices are approaching $4 per gallon and recession-addled Americans are tired of syphoning gasoline from their lawnmowers just to make it to the grocery store. 

Enter the Prius C, a coyly smaller Prius that’s infiltrating the sub-compact market. Starting at just under nineteen grand the C has every reason to whip out its fuel economy numbers with trump card confidence: 

53mpg city, 46mpg highway. 

That’s 50mpg combined kids, hands down the best fuel economy a mass-produced modern car can offer without plugging into an electrical outlet. 

Whether driven in normal, eco or all-electric mode the C’s heads up display keeps you relentlessly up to date on just how much fuel the car is capable of saving when driven to its full hyper-mile potential. 

For those interested in training their right foot to reduce their carbon footprint in real time, the C will rate you on scales of one to five in categories such as braking, acceleration and driving at speed. The less throttle used the better your score.

I had a particularly negative experience with this interactive technology when I asked a friend for five dollars in return for a twenty minute drive to and from the grocery store. He pointed to the heads up display which had taken to the liberty to show the trip only cost me $0.17 in gas money. 

I sense an internet basement-troll is about to point out a flaw in the C’s fuel economy numbers in the comments below. Before he does it should be mentioned that while impressive, the C’s 50mpg combined is nearly identical to the standard Prius’ ratings even though the C weighs nearly 500 pounds less. 

If the C is all that and a double rainbow shouldn’t it be pushing the 60mpg mark then? 

Not necessarily. The C uses a smaller version of the Synergy Drive hybrid powertrain found in the standard Prius, a 1.5L I4 with a 45kW electric motor producing a combined 99hp to be exact. The smaller setup saves weight but also makes 35hp less than the standard Prius, causing the C’s power to weight ratio to push out nearly identical fuel economy numbers with its bigger brother’s.

But that isn’t the point behind the weight loss. For now most people aren’t going to turn their noses up at 50mpg combined. In the bigger picture Toyota wants the Prius to be its best-selling nameplate by 2020. 

Besides offering a subcompact variant of the Prius the C marks another significant step forward in reaching this goal by helping to close the gap between dedicated “Prius People” and consumers who are interested in great fuel economy but might still be skeptical of hybrids in general. 

Weighing in at less than a Mini Cooper the C’s smaller stature allows it a more agile feel than can usually be expected from a hybrid and should be expected from any other subcompact. In other words, it’s harder to notice you’re driving a hybrid. 

Compared to the standard Prius and many other hybrids on the market C feels nimble and responsive; two words that don’t normally appear in the same sentence with Prius or any hybrid for that matter. 

I dare say, in the world of hybrids, the Prius C is… Sporty! 

Still, for all the improvement in driving experience it certainly won’t knock your socks off in the way of acceleration or throttle response. In fact it might put them back on for you. 

Make no mistake: Every Prius regardless of size is designed to eek as many miles out of a gallon of gasoline as humanly possible. Fifty miles per-gallon combined still comes with a price you don’t pay for at the pump. 

Attempting to accelerate in the C clearly illustrates the grittiest portions of the hybrid stigma. The car REALLY doesn’t want to let you use more fuel than is absolutely necessary. At times it feels as though the gas pedal is actually arguing with your right foot that you just don’t need to get moving as quickly as you’d like, as if it wants you to glance over at your eco score dropping on the heads up display, gasp, and let off the gas. 

But once again, anyone who gets too frustrated by the neo-conservatist throttle is missing the point. A person who buys a Prius for its fun factor has most likely been dangerously swindled by a car salesman wearing a “Save Kony” t-shirt under his suit. 

The Prius C, like every Prius, is all about fuel economy. Having set the bar in that category the C is an early example of Toyota’s first steps towards refining and diversifying the Prius nameplate towards being the car most synonymous with the brand, both in the way of sales and in public perception. 

Improving drive quality is one of the first hurdles in the road and the C definitely appears to be moving in the right direction. 

If 50mpg at $18,950 is the starting point for this mission we should all be excited.

Hybrid Killer: 2012 Volkswagen Passat TDI

Consumers are wising up to the realization they don’t have to buy a hybrid for the sake of fuel economy. On average clean diesel vehicles are 30%-35% more fuel efficient than their gasoline counterparts, meet the same emissions standards and make significantly more low-end power. Not being a Prius should also be a plus to some. 

Volkswagen is fast emerging as the clear leader of clean diesel vehicles in the United States with their TDI models, sales of which are up 44 percent through March versus last year. On the whole 2012 has been exceedingly gracious to the dub brand. 

Thus far the fully redesigned Passat was awarded Motor Trend’s prestigious car of the year award and across the board VW celebrated its best first quarter since 1973. 

The jump in diesel sales coupled with the Passat earning top honors from Motor Trend ought to be big news for any car buyer looking to put a new midsize family car in the driveway. 

With a full tank of diesel a Passat TDI has an 800 mile cruising range (31mpg city, 43 highway). Those are groundbreaking numbers for a mid-size sedan, and from personal experience it’s possible to do better if you’re tender with your throttle foot. 

The question then becomes, “Why buy a hybrid?” 

If a diesel car can achieve comparable fuel economy at a near identical price point there’s little reason to put up with the concessions hybrid cars demand. 

Namely, hybrids tend to be underpowered, aren’t as much fun to drive and… Just aren’t that cool. 

The 2012 Passat TDI lets you have your fuel economy, your power and all of the wonderful things German engineering does for a driving experience. Needless to say the Passat won Motor Trend’s car of the year for good reason. 

Regardless of what sort of fuel they run on, too often family sedans neglect to provide any sort of tangible driving experience. They can be boring, less of a car and more of an appliance for transportation, like a toaster that your teenager wants to borrow on Friday nights. The Passat doesn’t lack character in any capacity. 

The steering is responsive, handling agile and precise, so much so it makes you wonder if there might have been a degree of sports car DNA slipped into its design, even if it was only for the sake of safety.

Inside the Passat feels spacious above all else, airy even. Just because a family sedan technically seats five doesn’t mean they’ll fit comfortably. They will in the Passat, even if the kids happen to be a six-foot tall high-schooler, Chunk from ‘The Goonies’ and a friend he hangs out with to make himself feel slimmer. 

The Passat’s Interior styling is tasteful, nothing flashy. The materials are high quality and stand as some of the best in its class. Running your eyes over the dash, seats and interior arrangements gives the feel of a luxury car that places more concern on fulfilling the role as such without trying to knock your socks off. 

On the exterior styling is more of a head turner, yet still manages to follow suite with rest of the car’s clean design and overall appeal. Versus being dramatic the re-designed body is elegant and understated. There’s nothing ostentatious about it although it is clear even at a glance that it’s a luxury car, albeit one that isn’t too concerned with appearing that way. 

The 2012 Passat TDI is an illustration of everything Volkswagen has going for it and gives a tangible definition to the ideal of German engineering. It should be on the short list of anyone looking to buy a family sedan whether they're ever heard of clean diesel or not. 

Being able to put more than a few hybrids to shame only sweetens the deal.

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About this blog

Brandon Seiler is a bonafide car guy, member of the Northwest Auto Press Association and proud Washingtonian. He covers the latest auto news, technology, and pretty much anything having to do with car culture. You don't have to like cars to read his blogs, you just have to be able to read.

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