Credit: KING



by TOM VOELK / KING 5 Car expert

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Posted on April 21, 2011 at 8:29 AM

Think about any performance automobile commercial you’ve seen recently.  There are no other cars for miles, obvious since the camera performs gymnastic moves as it swoops around the vehicle.  The road is curvy, the car is traveling fast.  It’s in the country, maybe by the ocean.  The driver?  Happy and carefree.  Exciting music and frenetic editing completes the experience.

In the real world only the music part is possible on a day-to-day basis (hope you have a good sound system).  The frenetic pace you’re experiencing is probably just that thing called life.  Sadly, stuck in choking city traffic the guy in the GT-R isn’t going any faster than the Prius driver.

So a car like the Lexus CT 200h makes perfect sense.  It’s a hybrid, the fifth in the Lexus lineup.  Fuel efficient, practical, stylish, sporty and comfortable it has all the signs of selling well.  Still, Lexus thinks it will sell only 1,000 copies a month.  Maybe if it came with a camera that circled around it...

Welcome to the small time.

CT slots into a niche market that Lexus believes will grow in the next 5 years.  It consists of Audi A3, BMW 1 Series and Volvo C30.  That’s pretty much it.  Americans like their premium cars big, these are small. You’ll see more Lexus RX350s in 10 minutes than all these cars combined in a month.

This is a preview, with just a couple hours of driving time at a Lexus sponsored event in Palm Springs, CA.  It won’t be launched until March.  In that short time I find the CT 200h to be a pleasant surprise.   It would be easy to dismiss it because in addition to it’s compact size the CT has three things going against it: Hybrids are considered numb slugs, Americans haven’t historically embraced hatchbacks, and the Lexus name doesn’t conjure up performance the way Audi and BMW do.  Despite the powerful IS-F and awesome LF-A supercar, the lingering image of Toyota’s premium brand leans toward comfy and isolated.

4 out of 5 isn’t bad.

Lexus says the CT is made special by 5 key attributes: Lexus Hybrid Drive (as opposed to Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive), L-finesse design, Lexus grade quality and detail, customer service, and unique driving character.

Lexus Hybrid Drive looks mighty familiar.  The gas engine is a 1.8-liter Atkinson cycle 4-cylinder making 98 horsepower.  An 80 horse electric motor and a CVT transmission round out the powertrain.  Total horsepower works out to 134 ponies.  That folks is essentially same stuff you’ll find under the hood of a Prius.  It has done Toyota proud so really, why mess with it?  The few incremental updates and changes that differentiate the CT from Prius are part of the natural evolution of this drivetrain.  Note that there is no manual option like Honda’s CR-Z.

Think this is just a re-skinned Prius?  The chief engineer would beg to differ.  His team spent a lot of effort making sure the CT is a different animal.  The wheelbase is 4 inches shorter, the suspension is more athletic and the structure is buttoned down.  Yamaha engineers designed a unique damper that is built into the braces on front tower tie bar and lower frame.  Seems like adding a brace with a little bit of give defeats the purpose but the tiny amount of travel it provides reduces resonance while adding body rigidity.     

Moving on to driving dynamics. 

Sure, CT 200h does Prius-like things such as pulling away from stop lights on electric power alone and covering short distances at low speeds using no gas.  But where Prius pushes and plows in hard cornering, the front-wheel drive CT is crisp and confident.  There’s a thick meaty leather wrapped wheel to hang onto and it transmits a surprising amount of road feel... for a Lexus.  The interior remains quiet and comfortable too.  Most important for many is fuel economy.  CTs EPA average of 42 MPG is 8 or so shy of Prius but better than all the others in this class, even the Audi A3 TDI. 

The drone of the CTs CVT can be annoying and holding gears (even virtual ones) is not an option.  But the handling and road feel is surprisingly good considering the Lexus reputation for smooth cushy rides. CTs ride height was designed so the center of gravity is between the driver’s hands and hips giving the head clues to how the vehicle is reacting.  It might encourage you to find an empty country road like the ones in those ads. 

There are 4 drive modes, Normal, Eco, EV and my favorite, Sport.  It sharpens throttle response, adds heft to the steering effort and changes the efficiency gauge into a tachometer.  Sport keeps the inverter’s full 650 volts on tap at all times where as other modes travel on 500 until the pedal hits the floor mats.  It doesn’t mean Sport mode is faster, it just feels that way.  0-60 takes 9.5 seconds in any mode but EV if your right foot is floored.  That stat means you’ll soundly loose any drag race with the competition.  CT gets karma points for being the cleanest though.

Settings can customized (the tach can be permanently displayed for instance) but the CT 200h will always start up in normal mode.  It’s up to you to switch over into a different mode, depending how you feel at the moment.  Sport mode also turns the gauge cluster lighting red (that’s got to make the car go faster, right?).  My ears detect less electric whine in the CT 200h compared to some of Toyota’s other hybrids.  Brakes seem to have a slightly improved feel too. 

Next up, materials and craftsmanship

As advertised the cabin uses better materials than Prius.  Heck, I find it an improvement over their HS 250h hybrid.  It’s a space that can even be enjoyed at rush hour.  Soft touch materials look rich, CT avoids the kind of “tacked on” luxury I find in the HS.  Heated seats are comfortable and supportive, choose between real cowhide or eco friendly NuLuxe synthetic leather.  All modern electronics like Bluetooth and iPod integration are here. 

An optional nav system is controlled by the Lexus Remote Touch joystick which works fine with its adjustable haptic touch.
If you grow tired of the interior look, different strips are available at the dealership making it possible to spruce up the instrument panel with bamboo trim.  The sound system with 40 gig hard drive uses a lightweight amplifier and the speakers are made from naturally derived materials.  Sorry, with limited time at the Palm Springs press launch I didn’t have much time to evaluate it.

Those who have experienced GMs OnStar know how truly great it can be.  Now Lexus has a similar service called Enform with Safety Connect.  Need emergency services?  Push the SOS button and help is on its way with your location pinpointed by satellite.  Plan trips on your home computer and upload up to 200 destinations to the cars navigation system.  Police can track your car if it’s stolen too. 

Lexus buyers tend to be well off so we’ll assume they’re social people.  Two of their friends should be just fine in the back seat.  There’s decent foot and legroom and the floor is flat for a person in the snug middle position.  For a premium brand it’s hard to believe there is no fold down armrest or cupholders of any kind here.  Very surprising.

Designed to be different 

CT is a useful hatchback, the first ever from Lexus if I remember correctly.  Americans love European stuff, why we haven’t embraced their love of wagons and 5-doors is a mystery.  Engineers reenforced the structure so the rear frame is more rigid, eliminating squeaks that can develop.  Even with the battery mounted in the back there’s still some storage and a space saver spare under the load floor.  With the rear split seats folded flat there’s more space than in CT than many other cars in the Lexus lineup. 

Styling is aways subjective but the L-finesses design appears European, almost French with flourishes of chrome trim that look like Japanese kanji.  It’s much different than the bionic armadillo that is Prius, no one will confuse the two.  The CT 200h sheetmetal doesn’t quite translate well in photos.  Wait until you see it in the flesh to judge. 

Driven by what can’t be driven
Lexus, like every other brand, wants to lure younger buyers into the showroom.  A positive experience early on can create a lifelong customer.  Easy to understand how CT buyers could become brand loyal, Lexus dealer customer service is legendary.   

In the end this car delivers a different dynamic than Prius.  CT 200h is on par with Volvo C30 but not quite as engaging as Audi A3, VW GTI, and the rear drive BMW 1 Series but it’s a definate improvement from Lexus.  My guesstimate on pricing is that it will start around 30 grand.  That number would make for good advertising.  Those looking for fuel efficiency with a crisper edge should check out the CT 200h.

And good luck finding an empty winding road.