The New Lexus Hybrid: Supposedly a "Darker Side of Green," Whatever That Means

Last Updated Apr 5, 2010 5:56 PM EDT

It's fair to say that auto journalists aren't the hippest people on the planet, so it's not surprising that there was general confusion at the New York International Auto Show last week over what Toyota division Lexus means with its "Darker Side of Green" campaign, aimed at introducing the new five-door CT 200h hybrid early next year.

The car is straightforward enough -- it's an entry-level hybrid that Lexus spokeswoman Allison Takahashi says is aimed at the "young, urban and hip crowd." As such, it's going after virtually the same audience as Scion, which premiered the iQ microcar and tC sports coupe with a lot of laser light and pounding music in New York. The biggest hurdle will be getting Americans to buy a five-door car (and to stop worrying about sudden acceleration).

But Takahashi is correct in pointing out that Lexus skews slightly older and richer than Scion, so its hipsters want more performance and a bit more luxury. Lexus is choosing to emphasize the performance part with a car that's in the "entry-level compact luxury" segment. The 200h has four driving modes, including "sport," which Lexus' ad campaign is implying will turn you into a spin doctor straight out of the Fast and Furious movies.

If you doubt me, just take a look at the trailer for a forthcoming interactive film noir, starring Norman Reedus, up at Lexus' website. The trailer previews a 12.5-minute film created by New York ad agency Skinny, premiering online April 13. The intention, says both Skinny and Lexus, is to give the 200h an edge, to make it seem as darkly smoldering as Russell Crowe in Gladiator.

The film puts you the consumer in the passenger seat, making decisions, as the 200h tries to get away from baddies who are trying to steal its hybrid secrets. The starring car skids as much as Ken Block at the wheel of a Subaru STI in his classic "Gymkhana Practice" (more than seven million page views). Extreme driving from a family-friendly Toyota hybrid?

Brian Bolain, Lexus' national manager of brand marketing and lifestyle strategies, said Lexus has done a lot of testing on the "Darker Side of Green" idea and that people generally understand it to mean "a hybrid with a bit of extra attitude." He said that the car's "sport" mode adds 30 percent more electric output, transforming an eco car into "a very fun to drive hybrid."

Lexus has hybrid versions of its GS, HS. LS and RX models, but the 200h, which combines a 1.8-liter inline four with a continuously variable transmission and a permanent magnet drive motor for 134 horsepower, should be more fuel-efficient than any of them. Toyota has promised to hybridize virtually everything in its arsenal, and Lexus is the furthest along. There are no official figures, but Takahashi said the 200h will better the 35-mpg-combined of the HS 250h. One source said it could reach 44 mpg combined. Price is also not nailed down, but that same source said low $30s.

The 200h display at the New York auto (up until April 11) is relatively tame, and the car a plastic model. But Lexus pulled out all the stops just before opening day when it displayed the car at a "Darker Side of Green"-themed climate debate between journalist Amanda Little (author of the book Power Trip) and Irish skeptic Phelim McAleer, moderated by comedian Sarah Silverman.

There were the requisite number of f-bombs thrown about, as well as some climatic bon mots from Little and, surprisingly, Silverman. McAleer was blustery but not particularly well informed. Responding to his antipathy toward the famous "hockey stick" emissions chart, Silverman said, "Is this because you hate science, or because you don't have hockey in Ireland?"

In an interview, Amanda Little said that Lexus is trying to build a younger, broader and hipper base than the yoga-practicing, tofu-eating "eco-warrior" image that surrounds the Prius. She cites a South Park episode in which a character says that Toyota's iconic hybrid "produces toxic levels of smug." The company wants the CT 200h to be, she said, "a smug-free product." Maybe, she said, it's about "a different kind of green."

The "Dark Side of Green" invitation list was heavy on celebrities and downtown types who just looked the part. Kevin Bacon showed up, says Brian Howard of The Daily Green, who adds that there were also "a couple of dudes from The Daily Show." Toyota's Wade Hoyt, who admits to attending in Docksiders and loafers, said, "It was full of hipsters -- the men wore black sneakers and the women were like the spawn of Vampira. None of them would shut up -- they kept chattering away through the debate."

It may be some time before anyone other than film actors gets to drive a 200h -- customer cars won't be delivered until next February. Bolain says Lexus sees the months before launch as a marketing window. "What we've done so far is just the tip of the iceberg," he said. "We have eight months of activation from now until end of the year."

Photo: Jim Motavalli