Lexus CT 200h: Thrifty, Nimble, and Stylish
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An inexpensive Lexus might sound like an oxymoron, but that is what the Lexus CT 200 h is and with it comes the attributes the marque has brought to buyers including vehicle quality and buyer satisfaction ratings that top the charts, as well as a frugality usually associated with the ubiquitous Toyota Prius. Of course, there are some caveats with this Lexus and they are in it diminutive size and it performance. Nevertheless, if you want a good looking hatchback that can get you a combined 42 mpg with the Lexus treatment the CT is your only choice. Helping make it an interesting choice is the utility of its four-door hatchback body style that make it an ideal choice for commuting, runs to the vet, or a weekend escape. 2014_Lexus_CT_200h_020

The CT 200h is very athletic and trim making it capable of being piloted through crowded mall parking lots as well as canyon runs with equal aplomb. Don’t expect exuberant response because the 134 horsepower engine is designed with economy in mind. The good news is that the pricing of this Lexus is exceptional. Indeed, you can acquire this Lexus for less money a well equipped Prius, although the latter may have more interior space and better fuel ratings. The Lexus comes standard with alloy wheels, automatic headlights, heated mirrors and puddle lamps, a sunroof, keyless ignition and entry, dual-zone automatic climate control, an eight-way power driver seat, split-folding rear seats, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, Siri Eyes Free technology that connects to select smartphones and a six-speaker sound system with a CD player, satellite radio and a USB/iPod interface. Options include a Seat Comfort, and Premium, Leather, Navigation package features a rearview camera, voice-controlled navigation system, Display Audio and F Sport package for those who want the go fast look.

Mom’s view: The CT is an interesting four passenger hatchback that has a cool, almost retro look. Very intuitive and its hybrid feature makes commuting effortless. Although the ride height is quite low, the visibility is good and the turning radius tight enough to make U-turns effortless. Safetywise, the Lexus has antilock disc brakes, stability and traction control, and airbags everywhere. Lexus’ telematics system automatically provides collision notification, stolen-vehicle location and emergency assistance. Most importantly, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the CT 200h its highest rating of “Good” in moderate-overlap frontal-offset, side-impact and roof strength, and for whiplash protection. Overall, you get a Lexus that does most everything well at a bargain price.

Dad’s view: Power for the 2015 Lexus CT 200h hybrid isn’t overwhelming, but when the electric motors and gasoline engine are united freeway merging and passing aren’t a concern. The CVT is excellent and keeps the 98-horsepower 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine on task. Handling is a good as most hybrids, especially the good feel of the steering and brakes. Very competent for what it is. The ride is compliant, but don’t expect the same level of quietness that is in the more expensive Lexus models. Still, it is enjoyable to drive and grows on you. The CT is like a secret that more people should know about as it provides a fun ride with frugality, exceptional suspension, comfort and quality of the Lexus brand without the big bottom line.

Young working woman’s view: The controls are fairly easy to master, but the control for the info-entertainment entries takes a while to learn as it uses a unique mouse-like interface and a joystick to move the cursor on the screen. It provides excellent feel, though. Interestingly, despite its size, the backseat has an amazing amount of leg and head room. The doors, however, are a bit slim so entry wearing a dress requires some practice. The glovebox and door pockets are diminutive, but the backseats can be folded down to provide access to nearly 35 cubic feet of cargo area. I really liked the smoothness of the CT as it switched between electric and gas modes and auto stop-start functions smoothly. BMW and Porsche could learn from Lexus in this regard. You can select three different driving modes from normal for day to day outings, Eco for crowded commuting, and Sport for a more aggressive feel.
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Young married man’s view: Finally got hitched and this would make a fine addition to the family. The CT has several features I admire such where Lexus claimed to use bamboo speaker frames and trim items made from plant materials. Although it looks small, once inside it does not feel that way. With the requirement that all news cars have backup cameras next year I was surprised that this was still part of an option package on the CT. That aside, I found the optional voice-command HDD tilt-screen navigation system with remote controller, the Enform emergency notification system, NavTraffic to be easy to use and quick to respond. The joystick control actually provides feel as you move it about. Very cool.

Family conference: The 2015 Lexus CT 200h is the most affordable Lexus with a starting around $33,000 and we have seen some models well loaded for this price. For that you get a handy little rig that enjoys pleasing its owner whether it is sipping fuel, parking in the smallest of spaces, or just making you proud every time you enjoy the many luxury features. A great way to reduce your carbon footprint, too.

Nissan Altima Hybrid

 By The Car Family

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Not for sale everywhere. Pity. This is the best hybrid you can buy for family usage. Unlike the competition it does not come fully loaded and so it is priced less than the high-line Toyota Prius with a MSRP of $25,000. Of course, it does not get the fuel mileage of the much smaller Prius, but it is quicker and sportier to drive.

The downside of the Altima hybrid is a spare interior with difficult to read gauges and front seats that could stand more padding. The engine can be a little rough, too, but with 36 mpg who cares? Another plus is that the Nissan comes with the same basic components as the Toyota’s Synergy Drive system, but sells for less. You also lose trunk space and the back seats don’t fold down due the battery pack and you are driving proven technology. In other words, the heart of this Nissan is Toyota.

Is it worth more than the regular Altima? Yes, for sure, if you don’t need the larger cargo carrying capacity and can scrimp on options. It is spunky with a soft ride and when you ask for acceleration you get plenty of it and right now. The Altima comes with a continuously variable transmission and regenerative braking and the brake feel is the best we have ever had in a hybrid.

Mom’s view: The back seats are wonderful. It drives like a luxury car, accelerates like a sports car, and gets fuel mileage that is astounding. Can you say 600 miles plus on a tank? You might want to upgrade the base interior a bit, but I loved the smart key that enabled me to start the Altima with a push of a button. The navigation system was well above average, but the radio reception was poor. The trunk is five cubic feet smaller than the regular Altima, which certainly diminishes its usefulness.

Safety wise the Altima Hybrid earned top safety marks and comes with standard traction control and a Vehicle Dynamic Control System as well as a tire pressure monitoring. The rear view camera is the best there is and you must have it if you park anywhere there are children or in a mall. Visibility is excellent in all directions. The Altima has dual-stage supplemental front airbags, side-impact airbags and a curtain side airbag.

For the money this is as good as it gets for a family vehicle. It runs clean, gets exceptional gas mileage, and is well priced. I like it better than the Toyota Camry, but that is due to the Nissan’s handling and good visibility. Don’t buy another hybrid without testing the Altima.

Young working male’s view: Altima Hybrid is boring. The interior is a let down even with a good voice-recognition system, Bluetooth hands-free calling interface, and responsive handling. If you get the optional Digital Bose Stereo with an in-dash six-disc CD changer and nine speakers you are lucky. The base unit sucks. The 6.5-inch touch-screen GPS is run by a DVD and has one terrific feature and that is a Where am I screen that even provides local traffic incident reports. The monitor also tilts to avoid sun glare, somewhat. Driving a car with a CVT is dull with very little feel when you demand some excitement. I’d pass on this one and wait for the next generation of diesel cars if you want fuel mileage and some pep.

Working woman’s view: There is plenty to admire in this rather bland looking vehicle. You have dual zone automatic temperature control, power windows and a driver’s trip computer and the hybrid’s standard audio system is an AM/FM single-disc CD player with six-speakers and an auxiliary audio input jack. Get the optional Bose system or you’ll be sorry.

Now for the sad part. Even though it uses the proven Toyota hybrid system, the past reliability scores for Nissan products isn’t the best. However, I believe this is changing and if they can get their sales and service people to perform as the Altima hybrid does they should be in excellent shape. I would take the risk.

Dad’s view: Nissan’s CVT is as good as Audi’s. The interior layout is easy to master with good quality materials, albeit with need for a bit more feel in the switches. The steering is too soft for me, but it makes parking a breeze and the suspension on the hybrid is stiffer than the regular Altima making cornering a bit easier, but not in the Maxima’s territory. The brakes are very good, but they are regenerative and so have an initial soft feel. They have a better feel than all other hybrids except the Lexus.

The 2.5-liter, 162 horsepower four cylinder is adequate even without the electric back-up, and you can take pride in knowing that the Altima has a Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle standing and even meets the Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle requirements.

Family conference: Check it out. This is the best bargain in the hybrid field and we have tested them all except for those from General Motors.

Are Hybrids Hype?

By The Car Family

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You can’t judge a car by its gas mileage especially considering driving is the leading cause of accidental death. Add to fact that area residents spend an average of 33 minutes commuting and the need to make an informed decision about purchasing a highly hyped hybrid becomes even more time worthy.

Hybrids started when the legendary Ferdinand Porsche developed a car that used gas and electric power in 1899. This petrol-electric or Elektromobil was short-lived but the technology is still used today in many forms such the diesel electric locomotives. With this proven technology and over one million on the road already issues such as reliability, and battery replacement costs should not be a concern, especially since most have a limited warranty of eight to ten years. Crash ratings have been excellent, too, with hybrid providing essentially the same ratings as gasoline only versions.

The main question is whether or not you need a hybrid. For example, if you don’t spend at least 50 percent of your time in heavy traffic you can do as well with a diesel powered vehicle. The reason is that hybrids give the best results in driven at speeds under 30 mph. Diesels do better on the highway. For example, the Mercedes Benz E-Class Bluetec* can go over 600 miles before refueling thanks to its 21 gallon tank and 31 mpg average. However, there are other reasons to consider a hybrid such as the tax incentives, reduced air pollution, and some hybrids qualify for the coveted high occupancy lanes.

We tested all the hybrids except those from General Motors due to unavailability. They were remarkably competent and polite vehicles with a few idiosyncrasies, but nothing emotional troubling outside of the fat that the lack of engine noise prevented the dog from hearing us and he was caught on the couch several times. You might consider a silent dog whistle to warn them and suave their pride.

Today’s hybrids are not plug in vehicles. The engine recharges the battery pack. To help with gas mileage the engines turn off at stoplights until the accelerator is pressed when they immediately stop. If the air-conditioning is left at its highest level the engine stays running at intersections to promote cooling.

The Players

Pricing for the tested models starts at just over $22,000 for the Civic and Prius to over $40,000 for the Lexus 400h. With many models being well loaded with features it is difficult to compare costs with a non-hybrid model. Another consideration is that some hybrids are commanding premiums over the sticker price.
Toyota’s Prius is the big seller and it is the only sedan model where you can fold down the rear seats for larger packages. It is our favorite, being The Car Family vehicle of the year in 2001 and 2003. Handy, easy to park, and with just enough power to make Ventura Freeway traffic merges simple, this is the benchmark for hybrids.

Honda’s Civic isn’t quite as efficient as the Prius, but is more dynamic to drive. The Honda doesn’t have the useable interior space and sits lower. The Civic is magic in traffic with plenty of perk and only reduced rear vision making parking a bit tender.

Nissan’s Altima Hybrid doesn’t offer the otherworldly mileage of the Honda and Toyota, but it has a lot more passenger room and provides a ride that more people will identify with. There are some superior deals on this model as it gets 10 mpg less than the smaller sedans. This Nissan is as good as the Camry for families,

The Ford Escape/ Mercury Mariner are the best SUVish vehicle if you need the room. Stick with the two-wheel drive version and you are going to be getting better fuel mileage than nearly every other sedan in the world. Good seating, excellent visibility, and very easy to live with these Ford products are highly recommended if you need the extra cargo space they offer.

Toyota Camry and Highlander hybrids use the extra electric energy as much for performance as improved gas mileage. The result is slightly improved gas mileage and acceleration. The non-hybrid Camry and Highlander get nearly the same highway mileage as the hybrid version, but in town the latter averages over 10 mpg more.

Finally, the queen of the hybrids, the Lexus RX 400 h. It is smooth, sporty, and perky while providing a cavernous rear cargo area. An exceptional shopping car with a power lift rear tailgate and enough electronics to occupy a teenager, but with the lowest fuel mileage figures of all the hybrids we tested.

Family conference: In a community so close to Hollywood it is difficult to sometimes believe anything that has been as hyped as the hybrids. But in this case Palisades drivers should hop onboard and save on fuel and reap such subtle benefits as being able to monopolize family gathering with talk of gas mileage figures. With high resale values and many more hybrids coming online soon, even one ironically from Porsche, this is a great time to drive the future.

A quick guide to fuel mileage for hybrids

Vehicle commute mileage highway mileage Yearly gas cost @ $4.75 for 15,000 miles

Toyota Prius 48 45 $1550

Honda Civic Hybrid 40 45 $1700

Nissan Altima Hybrid 35 33 $2100

Escape/Mariner 34 30 $2230

Toyota Camry Hybrd 33 33 $2100

Toyota Highlander Hybrid 27 25 $2740

Lexus RX 400h (two wheel drive) 27 24 $2600

For Comparison Small Cars

Toyota Yaris 29 36 $2344

MINI Cooper/Clubman (premium) 28 37 $2020

Toyota Corolla 28 37 $2420

Honda Fit 28 34 $2430

Diesels

Volkswagen Jetta Diesel * 30 41 $2100

Mercedes Bluetec* 23 32 $2706

* Available in California as a 2009 model.