Thumbs Up: The most comfortable compact I’ve ever driven
Thumbs Down: Even in Sport mode, the car isn’t sporty
Buy This Car If: you want a premium alternative to the Toyota Prius
Hybrid buyers are a fickle bunch. Toyota seems to sell all the Prius models they can build, yet luxury hybrids like Lexus’ HS 250h sit on dealer lots month after month. When Lexus announced that they were launching the CT 200h in the U.S. market, I’ll admit to scratching my head. If Lexus couldn’t sell the HS 250h, I wondered, what made them think they could move the CT 200h in substantial volumes?
Maybe it’s functionality or maybe it’s price point. Maybe it’s some mysterious karma that the Prius radiates, since the CT 200h is based on sister-company Toyota’s best-selling hybrid. Whatever the reason, the CT 200h is a success, and Lexus appears to have no problem in selling the uber-luxury compact hybrid. After a week behind the wheel of one, I can see how easy it is to surrender to the car’s charms.
Beauty may only be skin deep, but I’ll say this: Lexus is probably selling a fair number of CT 200hs on looks alone. It’s a very good looking car, and the proportions are best described as “just right”. The front end is typical Lexus, but with an aggressively chiseled, particularly sporty fascia. The hood carries lines that flow from the fascia and tie the car’s appearance back to the IS250. The sporty theme is continued with a steeply raked windshield, blacked-out B pillars and roof spoiler. From the side, a character line starts at the bottom of the front fenders and sweeps upward across the doors before blending in with the rear wheel arch. Out back, the chiseled appearance continues, with the rear fascia incorporating what looks to be a diffuser beneath the rear bumper. Even the asymmetrical, multi-spoke 17 inch wheels are distinctive and give the car a certain attitude not normally associated with hybrids. The CT 200h may be about saving the planet, but it certainly looks like a hot hatch from the outside.
Climb inside the CT 200h, and you’ll find yourself looking for reasons to spend time in the car. That’s not to say the hybrid is a driver’s car, but it’s a testament to how inviting the interior is. The front seats are best described as “obscenely comfortable”, and are wrapped in rich white leather with deep side and hip bolstering. They’re not cooled, but they are perforated for better ventilation, and both driver and passenger get dial-adjustable seat heaters. The driver is treated to an inflatable lumbar support cushion that can be raised or lowered for maximum comfort. The front seat passenger goes without, but the seats are comfortable enough that they probably won’t even notice.
The rear seats are nearly as comfortable for two adults shorter than six foot. The CT 200h is a small car with a sweeping roofline, and the price to pay for styling is compromised rear-seat headroom. There’s not a lot of legroom in the rear either, so you really need to examine the rear seat if you routinely haul three or more friends around. Take a look at the lower seat cushion as well; it’s short, which means that rear seat passengers will be fighting over the shotgun seat on long road trips.
Like all hatchbacks, the CT 200h can be configured to accommodate a wide variety of cargo. With the rear seats up, trunk space is surprisingly generous, and a retractable cargo cover keeps your valuables out of sight. The rear seats fold nearly flat, giving you a decent amount of cargo room for hauling your stuff from place to place. The CT 200h is dog-friendly, too, unless your taste in canines runs to giant breeds like Great Danes.
The dash is typical Lexus fare, which is to say that materials, fit and finish and even ease of operation are best-in-class. Navigation, infotainment, system and climate settings can be adjusted via Lexus’ Remote Touch input system, which operates much like a joystick controller. If you prefer to set cabin temps or radio stations the old fashioned way, fear not: the center console features redundant controls for the climate and audio systems. What you won’t find inside the CT 200h is the kind of traditional luxury that buyers associate with Lexus’ larger offerings. There isn’t a scrap of wood used inside the hybrid hatchback, but I say that’s a good thing. The CT 200h is aimed at a younger demographic, one for which burl walnut isn’t a selling feature and therefore doesn’t need to be tacked onto the price.
Instruments on the CT 200h vary with the driving mode selected on the center-console knob. In Normal or Eco mode, the driver gets a large speedometer in the center of the instrument cluster, flanked by a “power gauge” on the left and a fuel gauge and information display on the right. The power gauge doesn’t do much, but it does tell you if you’re charging the battery, operating the car at peak economy or hampering fuel economy with abrupt or prolonged throttle input. Shift the knob to Sport mode, and the instruments are illuminated in red. Better yet, the power gauge is replaced by a more useful conventional tachometer.
The drivetrain of the CT 200h will be intimately familiar to anyone who owns or has driven a Toyota Prius. Both cars get the same 1.8-liter, four cylinder engine and parallel hybrid drive system, good for a combined 134 horsepower. As with the Prius, the only available gearbox is an electronically controlled CVT transmission. That makes adding a Sport mode to the CT 200h more than a little ironic: since the car is heavier than a Prius and doesn’t use the Prius’ low-rolling resistance tires, it’s slower off the line than a Prius. Zero to sixty comes up in just under 10.5 seconds, but in its favor the car does return an EPA estimated 43 mpg city and 40 mpg highway. In a mix of city and highway driving, I saw a combined fuel economy of 41.2 mpg, but I wasn’t exactly trying to squeeze out the best fuel economy behind the wheel.
The CT 200h won’t beat a Prius in a drag race, but the car will make up for it when the road gets twisty. Like all hybrids, the CT 200h feels heavy to me, which hampers road feel and (of course) performance. Lexus is pitching the CT 200h as a sport hybrid, but that’s not the same as a sport sedan or even a hot hatch. Handling is reasonable, with nicely weighted steering, but sudden direction changes remind you that the CT 200h is no lightweight. Most disappointing, perhaps, is the lack of improvement in throttle response or acceleration in Sport mode. In a Honda CR-Z, there’s a significant difference between the Normal mode and the Sport mode, but in the CT 200h this difference is nearly imperceptible. The car uses regenerative braking to charge the batteries, which hampers brake feel for spirited driving and further detracts for the car’s sporting appeal. If you’re shopping the CT 200h because Lexus tells you it’s sporty, you’re likely to be disappointed. If you’re shopping the Lexus CT 200h because you’re looking for a personal luxury compact hybrid, I’m sure the car will meet or exceed your expectations.
My 2011 Lexus CT 200h Premium had a base sticker price of $31,775, including a destination charge of $875. Options on my tester included the $1,100 Premium Audio Package (10 speaker premium audio system, in-dash 6 disc CD changer, auto-dimming rearview mirror, Homelink universal transceiver), the $1,330 Leather Package (leather seating, rain sensing wipers, auto-dimming outside mirrors), the $2,445 Navigation System (HDD navigation system with voice command, backup monitor, XM Traffic, Weather and Stocks), the $75 Cargo Net and the $299 Illuminated Door Sills for a total sticker price of $37,024.
Since there really isn’t any direct competition for CT 200h, it’s probably most fitting to compare it in price to the Toyota Prius, with which it shares a drivetrain. Even a loaded-to-the gills Prius won’t match the CT 200h in style or handling, but an optioned-out Prius Five can very easily match or beat the price of the Lexus. Equipped with all luxury and technology packages, the top of the line Prius Five stickers for $38,047; for that money, make mine the Lexus CT 200h.