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2011 Lexus CT200h (Ted Laturnus for the Globe and Mail)
2011 Lexus CT200h (Ted Laturnus for the Globe and Mail)

2011 Lexus CT200h

Lexus CT200h: The frugal gourmet Add to ...

Here's a bit of trivia for you: which Canadian city is home to the most corporate head offices?

Answer: Calgary, where Big Oil, and all that goes with it, pretty much rules the roost.

Calgary is all about black gold, and the people that work in this industry are prime fodder for an upscale hybrid hatchback, according to Lexus of Canada director, Larry Hutchinson.

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"Calgary drivers purchased almost 8 per cent of all Lexus advanced technology vehicles in Canada," Hutchinson said at the launch of the new CT200h. "Gas prices and commute times are on the rise, and it's in these environments that hybrids deliver performance and efficiency advantages that conventional vehicles simply cannot match."

Hutchinson and his company are banking that the tech-savvy people working in the petroleum industry (and elsewhere) will be drawn to Lexus' newest upscale fuel sipper. "This demographic has embraced advanced technology, environmental awareness, and an urban lifestyle - with all of its benefits and challenges," he adds.

Built on a platform similar to that of the Toyota Corolla, Matrix and Prius, the new CT200h also draws heavily from the Prius when it comes to hybrid technology.

Its hybrid drive system is much the same, with a few modifications - different software, controls and separate nickel metal-hydride batteries - and it's propelled by the same 1.8-litre, four-cylinder, mated to a permanent magnet electric motor and a CVT automatic transmission. This engine is of the Atkinson variety, which means that, during the compression cycle, it keeps its intake valves open longer than usual, resulting in lower compression and greater fuel efficiency. Atkinson cycle engines are also used by Hyundai, Ford, GM and Mercedes-Benz, to name a few.

On the ground, the CT200h is not going to set any land-speed records, and is actually one of the slower vehicles I've driven lately. There are four driving modes: EV, Eco, Normal and Sport, but the Sport setting, which is supposed to enhance performance, is basically all sound and fury. The EV setting is all-electric and the car runs on pure battery power until about 40 km/h, depending upon how you drive it.

"You can actually go higher than that if you're easy on the gas," adds Lexus team leader, Glenn Alkema. Most drivers will likely opt for the Eco mode on the highway and Normal around town. The company is claiming an overall combined fuel economy of 4.6 litres/100 km.

According to Lexus, the new CT200h emits almost 50 per cent fewer hydrocarbons than a comparable diesel engine and has fuel economy more than 25 per cent better than its nearest diesel competitor, which, in this case, would be the Audi A3 TDI. At this point, it's the fuel economy leader in the premium segment of the market.

Lots of interesting little bits and pieces here. For example, the CT200h will have Smart Stop technology, which means that when you brake, the drivetrain will automatically decelerate, to provide a little more stopping power via engine compression.

The driving modes also have ambient lighting in the cockpit - red for Sport and blue for Eco - and there are eight airbags, two of which are for knee impact.

The Exhaust Heat Recovery System, meanwhile, warms up engine coolant more quickly, for reduced emissions, and an exhaust gas recirculation system keeps the engine running cooler once under way.

The CT200h also utilizes LED lighting throughout, and the sound system speakers have diaphragms made from bamboo charcoal, fibre and resin. "Bamboo is much more durable and lighter than other materials currently used in speakers and is highly sustainable," claims Alkema.

Emulating Mercedes, perhaps, the CT200h also has Lexus' own brand of non-leather, non-naugahyde upholstery in the form of NuLuxe, which apparently produces less carbon dioxide and requires less power during the manufacturing process, compared to other petroleum-based polyethylene materials.

What it may lack in power, the CT200h makes up for in handling and ride comfort. Full marks here. On the highway, it is quiet, stable, and well-planted. You don't need to crank up those bamboo speakers to hear the sound system or shout to be heard over road noise and, aside from being a titch shy on elbow room, the CT200h is comfortable and driver-friendly.

It also has surprisingly good handling and manages most tight corners with poise and a nice sense of balance. Bonus: a very tight turning circle of 5.2 metres. However, don't pull out to pass that 18-wheeler unless you've got plenty of daylight in front of you. This is a slow car, remarkably lacking in bottom-end grunt and useable reserve power. Think of the Prius and you'll get a fairly clear picture of its performance characteristics.

Lexus is now the hybrid leader in Canada's upscale-car market, selling more than 27,000 units last year. With the addition of the CT200h, it will have five models on the market. At least 13 per cent of the company's sales come from its hybrids, and the CT200h will be its "gateway" model, starting at a hair less than $31,000. Lexus will bring in just 1,200 cars for 2011, and it will be offered in four variations: base, Touring, Premium, and Technology.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

2011 Lexus CT200h

Type: Four-door, compact hybrid hatchback

Price Range: $30,950-$39,350

Engine: 1.8-litre, Atkinson-cycle, four-cylinder/Permanent magnet electric motor

Horsepower torque: 134 hp/not available

Transmission: CVT

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 4.5 city/4.8 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Toyota Prius, Audi A3 TDI, Mercedes-Benz B200

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