Main | Blending Drivability and Efficiency: Part 1 »

Blending Drivability and Efficiency: Part 2

So I bought a Lexus CT 200h, a veritable Prius on steroids. It came closest to meeting the objectives I set for my next car: It was as enjoyable to drive as my BMW 335i and almost as frugal as my wife’s 2010 Prius. It provided a comfortable ride with low NVH (noise, vibration, and harshness) levels.

Fit and finish are top notch inside and out and everyone who has commented on the its design—from twenty-somethings it was designed to attract to baby boomers and an 87-year-old World War II bomber pilot—expressed enthusiastic approval. But, as a designer always on the lookout for designs that push the envelope in significant ways, I was disappointed to find the exterior and interior quite ordinary and uninteresting. The exterior lacked the refreshing flair of the Ford Focus at one extreme and the Teutonic elegance of the Audi A3 and VW Golf at the other.

Whereas designers of the CT hit the target with a timely design in keeping with today’s automotive fashions, I would have preferred a more lasting timeless design like that of the CT’s groundbreaking cousin, the iconic 2004 Prius. Its strange shape wasn’t merely novel, it was an instance of epochal innovation, which is to say it filled a practical need not yet fully met—aerodynamic efficiency—in a markedly better way than its competitors. It was epochal because it established a new standard, which will increasingly compel competitors to emulate in order to keep up. As a result, the Prius earned Toyota a reputation for leadership in consumers’ minds rather than followship.

Alternative conceptThe CT amounts to a Super Prius beneath its skin where engineers improved its performance and handling. The shape of the skin itself, which had the greatest potential for improving aerodynamic efficiency—the next Big Thing in automotive technology—doesn’t live up to the improvements underneath. With a CD (coefficient of aerodynamic drag) of 0.29 it falls far short of the Prius’ standard-setting 0.25. With the clean sheet of paper that came with a new model designation, the CT’s planners should have given designers the mandate to sculpt a shape worthy of a Super Prius. I believe Lexus would have attracted more new customers by going after early adopters with a young design than going after young designers with an old design. Just think of the possibilities: A svelte, luxurious Super Prius.

So the CT’s design didn’t push my buttons. What it lacked in visual aesthetics, however, it made up for in outstanding kinesthetics— from kin- (to move) and esthetic (feeling), which pertain to sensations of movement and effort originating from nerves in muscles, tendons, and joints that result from physical activities including driving. Good “in-the-zone” kinesthetics is as crucial to driving as it is to any other sport. The way a car feels is, after all, more important than the way it looks.

Indeed, the better it feels in hand the better it begins to look. As the philosopher George Santayana contended: Anything that provides pleasure, for whatever reason, is beautiful. A couple of fast laps around the Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca, where the CT demonstrated outstanding drivability, was all I needed to appreciate where the CT’s beauty really lay.

I enjoy driving it as much as any car I’ve driven or owned, including my A3 and BMW. The seat and wheel are comfortable. Instruments and controls are well placed. It responds and behaves as if it were a natural extension of mind and body, seamlessly connecting my intentions to the roadway. I love it more every time I drive it. Like other cars I have loved, I look for excuses to drive it.

Think of the CT as a sporty hatchback, not a family sedan, because it’s a bit smaller than the Prius. It is lower and rides on a wheelbase four inches shorter. These changes contribute to its outstanding dynamics by giving it a lower center of gravity than the Prius and better weight distribution. But it squeezes rear legroom. Adults can sit back there but it’s better suited to preteens. It’s also five inches shorter in overall length, which contributes to its perky look, but also shrinks the trunk. Folding the 60-40-split rear seat helps, of course.

Improved handling and ride are due chiefly to more sophisticated double-wishbone rear suspension, which replaces the torsion beam arrangement of the Prius. A hydraulic damper/strut connecting the spring towers of its McPherson-strut front suspension stiffens the body for enhanced handling and absorbs shocks and vibrations enhance ride and muffle road noise. Computer-controlled electrically boosted steering feels neither too light nor too heavy. It is crisp and tracks beautifully in all situations.

With a combined EPA city/highway estimate of 42 mpg, the CT easily beat the other contenders on my list: 31 mpg for the Focus and 34 mpg for the A3 and Golf diesels (offset by the fact that diesel fuel now sells for more than premium gas).

Average miles per gallon after 3,383 milesIn fact, my CT is the first car I have owned that actually beats the EPA numbers. For most of the 5,000-plus miles I have owned it, it has averaged 45 mpg. After a high-speed roundtrip to Los Angeles on I-5 (ask any Californian what that entails), which included passing over the mountainous Grapevine twice, it had dropped to 44.5 by the time I pulled into my garage but had already recovered to 44.7 the next day. 

That efficiency does come at a cost in performance: Its 0-60 time is no better than the lingering 9.8 seconds of the Prius. The A3 and Golf diesels are less than a second faster, at 8.9 seconds and the Focus does only a mite better than that at 8.7 seconds. Automotive journalists and enthusiasts make a big deal out of those fractional seconds and wouldn’t qualify any of these cars as “performance” cars.

If I were a typical automotive journalist I would give the CT short shrift simply because it is a hybrid. I would much prefer the adrenalin rush associated with reviewing Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and other potent exotica that 99 percent of readers will never see, 99.9 percent will never ride in—much less drive—and 99.99 percent, including me, can only dream of owning.

What’s so important about shaving three or four seconds from the 0-60 time, anyway? It’s worth recalling that a 1955 Porsche Speedster consumed 15.3 seconds getting to 60. As recently as 1997 auto journalists gushed over the Golf GTI’s 0-60 time of 10.5 seconds. And yet, all those cars were considered brisk enough and fun to drive.

The CT can accelerate briskly enough to safely enter a freeway and has enough oomph to pass quickly enough over a reasonable distance at freeway speeds. Having reached 60 mph in 10 seconds, I can break the speed limit in another two seconds or so. Three more and I’ll be pacing the ticket-attracting BMWs. I had no problem keeping up with limit-breaking traffic heading for L.A. on I-5.

So what’s it all about, Alfie? It’s about sex and power. In one of the most interesting chapters of psychological history, Sigmund Freud shunned one of his star pupils, Alfred Adler, who took issue with Freud’s notion that sex was the most basic driver of human behavior. Adler, known today for his concept of the inferiority complex, contended that power, and its attendant control over things, was more important than sex. There’s plenty of evidence that both sex and power are very important, not only in human affairs but also in our affairs with cars; impotent cars aren’t sexy. It’s no coincidence that ads for Viagra and Cialis appear on the back pages of most car magazines.

The CT’s lackluster acceleration is understandable since it shares the Prius’ power sources: a 1.8-liter gas engine rated at 73-kilowatts (98 horsepower) and 60-kilowatt (80 hp) electric motor. Those numbers add up to a respectable 178 hp but the total power stated by Lexus is only the same134 hp as the Prius. “Why the discrepancy?” you might ask.

The answer is mostly conjecture on my part. To date, I haven’t been able to talk directly with technical experts at Lexus. I believe the discrepancy stems from the fact that the motor normally sees no more than 500 volts capable of producing 36 hp (98 hp + 36 hp = 134 hp). As I noted in the Green Meanie article, however, an electric motor can be coaxed into producing more than its normal power by simply feeding it more than its normal diet of amps and/or volts—but only briefly— only for as long as the overload doesn’t overheat either the motor or battery to the point of damaging either. The computers in the latest Prius and CT, which differ, occasionally send each motor as much as 650 volts (noted as the “maximum voltage” in official specifications). That’s enough extra juice to more than double the motor’s regular output from 36 hp to 80 hp, which could technically boost the combined power of engine and motor to 178 hp—more than the 140 hp of the diesel of the A3 and Golf or the 155 hp of the Focus.

With such a power advantage, why can’t the CT beat the A3, Golf, and Focus—or even the Prius? The answer lies in the computer that controls the mix and match of engine and motor speeds. The CT’s driver can dial in one of three different blends of power and efficiency by turning a knob that controls the computer’s energy management system to one of three settings: ECONOMY, NORMAL, or SPORT. A separate button puts the system into EV (electric only) mode for a mile or so of low-speed driving on battery power alone. The SPORT mode also changes the feel of the electrically boosted steering and inhibits the traction and stability controls enough to allow a skilled driver to push things closer to the car’s dynamic limits while enjoying a twisty road. The instrument cluster, which normally monitors efficiency, changes to a tachometer. Adding drama, instrument lighting goes from blue to red. (Thankfully, no vines or shrubs grow within the instrument display in ECO mode.)

According to information I received indirectly from a Lexus spokesperson, the difference between CT and Prius performance depends on when they get the full 650 volts. Both do when their pedals are pressed to the metal. But he noted that both produce only 155 hp, not 178. I’m guessing that the computer never lets the engine and motor max out at the same time. At any rate, their equal power outputs would explain why they turn in the same 0-60 time.

Presumably, the CT is programmed to feel like a Prius in ECONOMY or EV modes. They behave differently otherwise. Favoring fuel economy the Prius never sees 650 volts unless the driver presses the pedal all the way to the floor in POWER mode. But the CT driver can tap the full 650 volts at any time while in SPORT or NORMAL modes. Consequently, the CT feels more eager and robust than the Prius much of the time—but with a corresponding drop in efficiency. 

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Reader Comments (5)

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December 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterOBD2

The 2012 CT's hybrid system has four driving modes - the EV which allows you to go all electric for up to a mile; Eco which provides maximized fuel economy for gas-electric driving; Normal which allows the car to respond to changing driving conditions by instantaneously adjusting its gear ratios; and Sport which is calibrated toward performance and handling.

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January 8, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterpeterjones

LOL at Prius on steroids! A low NVH is also on my priority list when choosing a car. I think both the CT and Prius are good finds, and it's hard to pick which one I like better.

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February 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTyra Shortino

Actually, i prefer like the Alternative concept image. The color is also great with that.

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