Wednesday, October 26, 2011

8 Wheels & 8 Paws: What A Way To Go

AT THE MOUNTAIN RETREAT -- Having installed a passive solar power system at the mountain retreat that is paying dividends because our local utility has to buy our surplus electricity and we've got gobs of it, the next logical step in managing our lives more economically and environmentally friendly was to buy a hybrid vehicle.

And so the
DF&C ponied up for a 2011 Lexus CTh hatchback in a color called Fire Agate Pearl, which not coincidentally is a metallic version of the color of Nicky and Jack, our sister-brother chocolate Labrador retrievers.

The purchase was also necessitated by the fact that the DF&C's 2000 Lexus RX3000 SUV (whom we call Rex; get it?) has 310,000 miles on the clock and while we don't plan on getting rid of it anytime soon because it's a great all-wheel drive car during the snowy winters hereabouts, it is getting long in the tooth. It also consumes 20 miles per gallon on the DF&C's fairly lengthy commutes to and from the hospitals where she toils.

Buying another Lexus was a no-
brainer. The RX300 has needed no major repairs, is still squeak free, has run flawlessly and we're treated like family by the dealer. But until the CTh was introduced -- first in Europe where Lexus is going right at Audi, BMW and Mercedes with this sporty but economical vehicle, and then in the U.S. earlier this year -- the hybrid choices ranged from the dinky to the ridiculous.

We've been driving the
CTh, for going on a month now and how, you ask, is it performing?


The area behind the front seats is a little cramped for Jack, who five hands high cannot fully stand when he and his sister are out for a ride, and with the back seats up things aren't exactly roomy for tall people. But other than that minor inconvenience the
CTh has been fabulous. As in averaging between 45 and 50 miles per gallon (that is not a typo) on regular unleaded gasoline but still offering neck-snapping performance when in Sports mode.

The other modes are Normal and Eco, the former for everyday cruising and the latter for when the car is running on its batteries and not its normally aspirated 135 horsepower gasoline engine.

Lexus introduced the Prius, its first hybrid vehicle, in the U.S. in 2001 and has been tweaking the gasoline-electric system over the last decade as it also has been offered in its mid-size, luxury and sport utility vehicles. The system is an Atkinson Cycle-configured motor on which all Lexus hybrids are based.

When starting from a stop under normal conditions, only the electric drive is used. This provides a gentle, quiet takeoff. When a more powerful launch is desired, the electric drive works in combination with the gas engine to provide maximum acceleration. In both cases, the CTh enjoys immediate torque optimization not possible with a gas engine alone.

While cruising, power from the gas engine is allocated to the drive wheels and to a generator that produces energy for the electric drive. This ensures maximum fuel efficiency at all engine output levels. When extra acceleration is desired, the battery provides added power to the electric drive, resulting in a quiet and smooth response. As speed increases, the gas engine provides power while the electric drive operates in harmony with the overall system to maintain precise control of engine output. The result is a smooth and powerful acceleration curve without the jarring shift points experienced in conventional cars bar those with ultra-sophisticated, high-end trannies.

When the CTh slows, the system suspends its delivery of drive power and converts to generating electricity. Thanks to a highly effective regenerative braking system, kinetic energy usually lost during braking is instead converted to electricity and sent back to the battery.

Unlike conventional vehicles, which must idle and consume fuel even at a standstill, the
CTh switches off its gas engine when decelerating and at a stop, saving fuel and minimizing emissions. The electric motor remains on and available for immediate takeoff.

(Incidentally, one drawback to hybrids has been the enormous cost of replacing the battery pack if it fails, but Lexus has us covered here with a 10-year warranty. The Chevrolet Volt, which costs a staggering 10 grand more than the CT and the driving range of a go-cart, has an eight-year warranty.)

Then there are the bells and whistles on the CTh, whom the DF&F has named Percy after her Royal Australian Air Force flying ace grandfather.

Chief among them is the ability to have her iPhone communicate with the
CTh's navigation and stereo systems. This enables her to display her iPhone touchpad on the nav system screen and do hands-free dialing and talking through the speakers closest to the driver or webstream her favorite radio stations through all 10 speakers via an iPhone app.

I drove Audi quattro stations wagons during my salad years. The fit and finish on all of them was superb. The cabin fitments and ergonomics were superb. The performance was spectacular.
The CTh matches those Audis for fit and finish. Ditto with the cabin fitments (including beautiful and cosseting Nubuck seats made not of leather, which Lexus no longer uses, but a synthetic material common in Birkenstock sandals). The performance is not up to Audi's standards, but is still excellent -- especially for a hybrid.
Lexus claims that 90 percent of a CTh can be recycled. It has disavowed leather and embraced hybrid technology, which is not just clever marketing but sensible, as well. I'll report back on Percy when it too has 310,000 miles.

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