The Hybrid Car Is Dead. Long Live The Hybrid Car!

It’s been months since I actually drove the 2011 Lexus CT200h. Well past the industry-standard thinking period. Well past the point of reason to write a relevant review. This does not escape me. The problem has been I didn’t know what to think of the car. There was no nice little box to fit it into and no cutesy or convenient metaphor to apply. I think the reason for the writer’s block is the car represents a tipping point in the young history of the hybrid car. It’s not that the CT200h is a good car or a bad car, but it’s a car pointing to a future where the word “hybrid” is meaningless, and that future is sooner than you think.
Think about the word “hybrid” for a minute. ‘Booo!’ ‘Hiss!’ right? It conjures images of a motoring society that’s been desaturated. Worse than beige, gray. Utterly devoid of character and interest, totally isolated from any pretense of enjoyability. Transportation appliances capable of adding nothing to your day, no more than Bluetooth extensions of your cell phone — Beeping when you swerve over a dotted line, beeping when you back up, beeping when you blink too long, beeping when the traction control steps in, beeping when you accelerate too hard or brake too hard or think about exceeding the speed limit. That is no future for the car.

Such is the perception, the doom-and-gloom place every gear head worth his salt goes when recoiling in horror at the sales figures of the Toyota Prius or ridiculing transparent grabs for green ink with the latest disappointing Honda. I do not believe this is an indication of things to come, however.
I believe the story of the hybrid will and is playing out just like the story of all new technologies in the automotive field. The newest features are pushed by marketeers as the must have game-changing something-or-other that will remake the automotive landscape forever. Sure there are some hiccups (a few car fires, some recalls, atrocious reliability, terrible quality, goofy features and questions of necessity, etc) but eventually technological evolution, cost reductions, and innovation move things in the right direction. Think of it as natural selection for cars. Once-premium features go down-market and then become just another feature. Don’t believe me? How about a few examples:
Begin at the beginning:

  • The car
  • The enclosed cabin
  • Electric lighting
  • Heaters
  • Automatic transmissions
  • The electric starter
  • Laminated safety glass
  • Air conditioning
  • Seat belts
  • Plastic bumpers
  • Crumple zones
  • Air bags
  • Electronic fuel injection
  • Stability and traction aides
  • GPS/infotainment systems

The examples are myriad, but I think you get the point. Technology and innovation aren’t something to be feared, they’re something to be refined, embraced, and integrated into the definition of the car. The good ideas by nature evolve and the bad ones die out. Nobody jumped to copy the first-generation Mazda MX-6’s oscillating vents. A counter argument is always ‘But I just want a simple car.’ Right, but we can all agree the general consumer isn’t going to march out and buy an open top, hand-crank Model T, that’s about as simple as it gets. As the consumer gains sophistication, so too must the products.
Ever drive a Ford Fusion hybrid? It’s just okay. How about that ever-present Prius? It’s a bad car. A Lexus RX hybrid? Napworthy. Dangerously so. Honda Insight? What’s the point? The reality is you’d be hard pressed to find any review of a hybrid — ever —  that doesn’t include a variation on the phrase “it’s okay… for a hybrid.” This includes the $100k- image hybrids that do nobody any good at all. Accepting a bad product just because it has the latest must-have feature doesn’t fly with me. It smacks of consumers being lazy and not demanding more.
And now after over 600 words I get to the point. Soon the hybrid car will no longer be acceptable as a bad car. In fact the word “hybrid” won’t even be relevant any more. “Hybrid” will just be a part of the daily operating condition of your car. The Buick LaCrosse with eAssist is fitted with stop-start, a regenerative braking system and a small battery, but they aren’t calling it a hybrid. The latest BMW M3 has stop-start, is that a hybrid? Yes and no. You see, the hybrid of the future — the very near future I believe — will go by another more familiar name: the car.
If the new Lexus I’m circuitously reviewing is any indication, the future of the hybrid is dead and the future of the car is just fine. As time goes on and fuel economy requirements grow ever stronger, pretty much everything will be getting a form of hybridization. Based on discussions with Toyota, Hyundai, GM, Ford, and other manufacturers, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a car that isn’t at least mildly electrified within two product cycles.This is not a bad thing. It’s just a change in the way things are done — a change for the better I might add.
Lets talk Toyota and Lexus real quick. I’m of the opinion the Hybrid Synergy Drive logo has so far been a free pass to sell a bad car. It’s the most cynical kind of bunt there is — create a brand, capitalize on that brand, and cruise on the brand recognition without significantly advancing the state of the art. If you want an example of where that leads, check out Sony and the Walkman. I do not like the Prius — it lacks polish, it handles like garbage, its HMI is infuriating and it asks buyers to pay a premium for a cheap-feeling interior. Hybrids Camry and Highlander? The sales figures tell that story. The HS250h is worse, it’s a tarted up Corolla without the fuel economy benefit of the Prius and fatter price tag. We’ve already discussed the RXNaptime-h and the LSGreenWash-h.
The CT200h, however, offers a surprising breath of fresh air. First, it doesn’t look like a robot egg — a big . You might not dig the look, but it’s nicely packaged, it has a distinctive style, and it doesn’t lull you to sleep on dulcet tones of apathy. Also, you cannot argue with wagony goodness. Second, it doesn’t handle like it’s on glare ice. Low rolling resistance tires are a bane upon the Hoon’s existence. They suck the life out of any corner and spit it into the ditch. Normally. Somehow the CT200h manages to corner confidently, albeit with the tires howling the whole way. There’s actual steering feel. Weird, I know. Its brakes aren’t squishy and vague.

There’s some kind of serious black magic going on under the hood too. For what is essentially a hot version of the Prius drivetrain, this car has some guts to it. The normally feckless electric motor is tweaked with better power electronics and develops much better torque and is combined with the Atkinson-cycle 1.8-liter VVT-i which produces 134 hp. In “Sport mode” (it also has Eco and Normal) the car has pickup you don’t expect from a hybrid, and the down-low electric grunt will wind the car from 0-60 mph in 9.8 seconds. The CVT is still unpleasant on many levels. These figures should result in cries of ‘that’s rubbish’ but I counter by saying 55 mpg economy figures were nearly effortless and 62 mpg wasn’t too much more trouble. The official EPA rating is 43/40. It’ll also do 1.2 miles in all-electric at speeds up to 28 mph. On top of it all the interior is a place fit for grown-ups and is both comfortable and stylish. Toyota’s HMI system is still deficient but hey, baby steps.
So what am I saying? The Lexus CT200h proves to me the electrified internal combustion engine is nothing to fear. There have been some bumps in the road, and a lot of bad and pointless cars along the way (Escalade Hybrid anyone?). There is still a lot of work to be done refining the systems involved, but we’re getting there and in the end we’ll all be better off. I know this sounds like sacrilege, but I’m beginning to believe it. Automakers are just starting to turn the corner and when everything is properly sorted out, cars will be just as fun and just as fast, but more frugal and maybe even a little more interesting (electric torque vectoring? through-the-road hybrid AWD?). I was going to say the CT200h is the first production hybrid I don’t feel like I have to make excuses for, but that’s not quite true. It is amongst the very few that feels like a homogeneous, finished product.  It needs regular tires and the CVT is, has, and always will be a transmission for losers, but other than that, there isn’t much to complain about. It’s a good car, no matter how late this review is.

By |2011-03-25T14:00:07+00:00March 25th, 2011|Lexus Reviews, Reviews, Road Test Reviews|0 Comments

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