Sat12202014

On The Road

Sizing up Toyota's new Prius and Lexus hybrids

 

Like other revolutionary innovations, the Toyota Prius was thought by many to have no chance of commercial success when it was introduced. After 14 years of production and 2 million units sold, critics have been proven wrong.

Last month we drove the new Lexus CT200h compact hatchback, built around the Prius powertrain, and the Prius V, scheduled to reach the market this fall. Both vehicles are excellent alternatives to the plain-vanilla Prius (as we’ll call the current Prius) for drivers who desire a bit more luxury, comfort and space but still want the same fuel economy and environmental efficiency for which the Prius is known.

The Prius V and the Lexus CT200h are part of Toyota’s strategy to create more consumer choices around the tested and accepted Hybrid Synergy Drive now available in the third-generation Prius. Early next year we’ll see the plug-in version of the Prius compete with the Chevy Volt, and also the smaller Prius C shown recently as a concept car at the Detroit Auto Show.

In all the models, the primary power comes from a 1.8-liter gasoline engine that provides 98 horsepower and 105-pound-foot of torque. It is supplemented by an 80-horsepower, 150 pound-feet electric motor on a continuously variable transaxle, and a smaller electric motor that mainly provides electric power. The drivetrains on all three models produce a net 134 horsepower. Nickel-metal-hydride batteries, used to store power, are larger but less expensive than the lithium-ion batteries used on the European Priuses and some other hybrids.

 

Prius V

Having crawled around and through the Prius V in Monterey, then driven it on the back roads to the mission town of San Juan Bautista, we think the V – for “versatile,” according to the press kit – is well-earned.

This car should really hit the sweet spot in the market. After reviewing cars that Americans buy in volume, Prius designers set out to produce a single vehicle that could substitute for a minivan, a crossover or even an on-road sport-ute.

The Prius V is longer, wider and higher than the plain-vanilla Prius, with cargo capacity behind the rear seats that’s 58 percent larger. There’s more legroom and headroom and wider seats for the passengers. Drop the rear seats down and there are 67 cubic feet of space back there, more than in many midsize SUVs.

Yet with all this additional space and weight, the Prius V still gets 42 mpg, matching or bettering nearly every smaller compact on the road.

We were also pleased to note that the designers have stiffened the chassis and improved the suspension so that the Prius V ride is quieter and smoother, even on bumpy country roads, than the base Prius. While no one’s going to confuse it with a sport sedan, this model is fun to drive, with a more confident, responsive feeling in the handling.

In the Prius V, we’ve found our new “best all-around” family sedan. With its high mileage, flexible interior space and confidence-inspiring performance, it’s sportier than a minivan, but much more environmentally sensitive and practical than any of the sport-utes on the road.

Lexus CT200h

For drivers who’d rather have a sport sedan but still want the fuel efficiency of a full hybrid, Toyota wants you to visit the Lexus side of the showroom and check out the sporty Lexus CT200h. The same Hybrid Synergy Drive is attached to the front wheels, but outside the model has a sporty, fashionable hot-hatch appearance, and the interior is trimmed with the leather and details you’d expect from a Lexus.

But is it really going to be confused with a sports sedan by someone who was blindfolded until they drove it out on the track?

We’re afraid not.

Even when you punch the Sport button that changes shift point (the other choices are Electric Vehicle, Economical and Normal), and the Dynamic driving mode button (as opposed to the Relaxed button), you still aren’t going to do much better than 10 seconds to highway speed out of the on-ramp. Sure, the car will be a little tighter through the curves, but if you can’t get back up to speed quickly after the corner, then it isn’t a sport sedan.

Instead, let’s just accept this nice little Lexus for what it is: a neatly styled, well-appointed, luxury compact for the person who isn’t going to be hauling the soccer team to practice for another few years but wants the efficiency of a full hybrid. We’d be perfectly happy with the compromises that were made to produce this new-age automobile.

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