By Barbara & Bill Schaffer
Montana Road Trip – We realize that the hybrid vehicles we’ve grown to know and love are great around town and for commuting, but we have often wondered how they would be on a road trip over hill and dale to grandmother’s house. We decided to try one recently on a longer run over the Washington prairies and Rocky Mountains to Bill’s mother’s senior living facility.
We talked to our friends at Lexus and they said, ‘why not take the 2016 Lexus CT 200h?’ In essence, it’s a much better looking luxury version of the highly popular Toyota Prius. It’s the entry-level model of the extensive Lexus hybrid lineup, which now includes six different models: CT, NX, RX, ES, GS and LS with prices ranging from $31,250 for the CT to $120,440 for the LS Hybrid.
The first thing we noticed about the 2016 Lexus Ct 200h F Sport was the distinctive styling which starts with the deep Lexus family spindle grille with a mesh pattern and LED low beam headlights with washers. The roof is a contrasting black. Our road trip car was the new Redline body color, and the only color of a highly scratch resistant self-restoring paint that heals minor scratches. The F Sport has a high rear spoiler and with two large air ducts. The wheels are a special twin-five spoke 17-inch alloy.
Our route took us east from our home in Washougal, Wash. along Washington Route 14 (the Lewis and Clark Highway), which is one of the most scenic roads in the country. The two-lane highway winds along the Columbia River through the famous Columbia River Gorge which cuts through the Cascade Mountains and leads out into the rolling plains separating Washington and Oregon. Not only is the road spectacularly scenic, it includes all types of terrain from thick forests to rolling plains. It has tight corners, sweeping curves and the road rises from river level to scenic overlooks hundreds of feet above the river. It’s a truly breathtaking drive.
The drive to Helena, Mont. offered a good chance to try out the CT’s F Sport-tuned suspension. The four-wheel independent suspension includes MacPherson struts in the front and a double wishbone system in the rear. The F-Sport package includes specially tuned dampers and springs especially designed to improve agility – and they work, the car handles beautifully with road holding confidence, no body lean and good ride quality. There was none of the roughness often associated with good handling smaller cars.
Powered by a 98-hp 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and a 650-volt motor generator, the CT 200h has a combined horsepower rating of 134. There is a second electric motor which works as the engine starter and as a generator to charge the hybrid’s battery. The engine and motor drive the front wheels through an Electronically Controlled Continuously Variable Transmission (E-CVT). Lexus says the 3,130 pound CT accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 9.8 seconds and has a top track speed of 113 mph.
The efficient hybrid drive train and the sleek four-door hatchback design (0.29 coefficient of drag) teamed up to produce an EPA estimated fuel economy rating of 43 mpg city, 40 mpg highway and 42 mpg combined. We’re pretty certain we’d have easily reached the 42 mpg combined number if we’d stayed at home. However, on this trip where much of the driving was on highways with 65 mph to 80 mph speed limits, our overall fuel economy settled in at a still very respectable 38.4 mpg over our 1,500-mile road trip.
The small engine and motor combination handled the higher speeds of Montana’s highways better than we expected. However, driving over the mountain passes was somewhat disconcerting while trying to maintain the posted speed limits. As we started to climb the engine would run up to 5000 rpms plus which made the car feel and sound as if the transmission was slipping. That’s typical of CVTs and one of the reasons we don’t care for them. On flat roads or downhill, the CVT is smooth and the system doesn’t sound overworked — it does the job it’s designed for, which is finding the optimal gear ratio and delivering better fuel economy.
The Lexus CVT does have a “B” position on the shifter, which creates a light engine braking that is helpful on downhill sections. Our choice would be to have a CVT with simulated gears that allow the driver to have more than two gear ratio selections for better control through the engine braking.
The CT 200h interior is well-designed, attractive and comfortable, even for the long distances we drove. Our typical road trip entertainment is audio books, which we download from our local library into Bill’s smartphone. Then we listen to the books through the audio Bluetooth link. The CT also had handy USB, audio and power port mounted in center console so it was easy to keep the phone charged even with hours of continuous use.
The Lexus also has a full-featured entertainment system with services like Pandora®, iHeartRadio, Slacker, Open Table® and several others. The radio has SirusXM and HD radio with iTunes tagging.
The Lexus has a comprehensive offering of infotainment features including an advanced audio system, user-friendly navigation system and the Lexus Enform Safety Connect system which would have called for help if we had crashed. New for 2016 is standard Siri®Eyes which lets you verbally phone people in your contact list, get turn-by-turn navigation and play music from iTunes® and much more.
The system also has a full menu of apps which provide information about the area where you are traveling and your destination. The safety technologies can help find the vehicle if it’s stolen and there is an emergency assistance SOS system.
We like the Lexus control system which uses a mouse-like device on the center console. It eliminates the need to reach out and touch the screen leaving messy fingerprints. We also like the high level of safety technologies like the Pre-Collision System with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control and front mounted radar sensor that could help prevent running into an unseen obstacle when pulling into a parking spot.
The Lexus CT 200h is available in two versions, the CT 200h with a base price of $32,190, including the destination charge or the CT 200h F Sport at $33,920. Our road trip F Sport with all the options had a price of $41,860.
Other than our personal bias against CVT transmissions, the 2016 Lexus CT 200h F-Sport turned out to be a very good road car and certainly a luxurious alternative to something like the Toyota Prius. We especially like the clean, low-slung styling and the plush sporty interior of the F-Sport. Shoppers looking for a luxurious smaller hybrid, the CT 200h is a good choice.