First Drive: 2011 Lexus CT200h

On the other hand, Prius drivers might consider the CT200h a downgrade in both utility and economy. The Lexus is five inches shorter in length than America's favorite left-lane plugger, and that translates to dramatically reduced rear-seat and trunk room. And thanks to the CT's standard big-boy tires and wheels (215/45VR-17 instead of 195/65SR-15) and good looks (which increase the coefficient of drag from 0.25 to 0.29), the Prius scores almost twenty percent better at the pump.

So, why would you ever choose the CT over a Prius?

For every other reason, starting with the way it drives. The CT200h's suspension is refreshingly firm, and from the highly supportive, aggressively bolstered driver's seat there's no perceptible body roll and not the slightest hint of wallow. Small bumps are felt but barely heard, and the CT refuses to lose its composure over the big ones or in the middle of corners. Although the CT occasionally hit its bump stops over exceptionally rough pavement, even the nastiest cobblestone road you can imagine couldn't coax a squeak or rattle out of the interior. The standard leather-wrapped steering wheel is thick and perfectly proportioned, and if you can put up with the bovine complaining from under the hood, you might even find that the cabin is quiet once you finally reach the CT's electronically limited 113-mph top speed.

A dial on the center console allows the driver to select among three drive modes: Normal (yawn), Eco (double yawn), and Sport (inappropriately named, but otherwise just right). In Sport, the current-flow indicator on the left side of the instrument cluster changes to a tachometer, the gauge illumination changes to red, the throttle is remapped for better response, and the quick, electric power steering is recalibrated for less assistance -- but, sadly, no extra feel.

The stability control is also remapped for less intrusion, but even in the so-called sport mode, it'll pull the plug at the slightest suggestion of indecent behavior. Too bad, since this version of Toyota's front-wheel-drive MC chassis (also seen in the HS250h and the Scion tC) might actually be Toyota's best -- if it were just allowed to play. Like in many hybrids, the brake pedal feels OK on soft applications, but its response to big pedal inputs is abruptly nonlinear.

This is a Lexus? Man, does it look downmarket in the pictures. The cut-lines around the front end and hood (bonnet) look as if they're walking through the bank naked. The interior looks like it fell asleep watching television. It's lovely to have a serious chassis in a hybrid, and the suspension sounds huge...which once again begs the question I've been asking for years: Why does the Prius have to drive like a turd?

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