The Lexus CT 200h is a five-door hatchback powered by a hybrid gas-electric powertrain taken from the Toyota Prius.
You do not plug this car in, you fill the tank with gas. It's propelled at times by both the electric motor and its four-cylinder engine, but at very low speeds it can run in electric-only mode for very short periods of time. The CT 200h gets great gas mileage, achieving an EPA-estimated 43 mpg City, 40 mpg Highway.
The 2012 Lexus CT 200h F Sport has slightly firmer shocks, but after that it's aesthetic: black leather, dark racy 17-inch alloy wheels, mesh grilles, big rear spoiler, aluminum pedals, perforated leather steering wheel, titanium-gray metal instrument panel trim, and F Sport badging.
The CT 200h is 4 inches shorter than the Prius, or the same overall length as the Audi A3 wagon. Its shape looks more European than Japanese, and its profile from all angles is very similar to that of the Audi. The coefficient of drag is a low 0.29, as much of the aero design was determined by wind tunnel testing.
Borne of a hatchback, the CT 200h looks like no other Lexus, from the sides and rear. It makes boxy look stylish, with smooth and flowing lines, from the contours on the hood up to the long roofline and straight back to the spoiler with a cool little lip over the muscular liftgate. The details of the design, trim and wheels are flawless.
Inside, the cabin is cozy with a comfortable driver's seat. Everything is easy to reach. The steering wheel is slightly flat-bottomed, making climbing in and out a little easier, but our knees still rubbed, even with the adjustable steering wheel raised. Rear-seat legroom is tight. Cargo space is about the same as a compact sedan, small for a hatch. The view rearward is restricted, and we recommend the optional rearview camera that comes with the navigation system.
Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 43 mpg City, 40 mpg Highway. We weren't able to achieve that, however, never reaching 38 mpg.
With the Prius powertrain, the CT 200h makes 98 horsepower from the 1.8-liter Atkinson Cycle gas engine and 80 hp 60 (kW) from the generator, for a total of 134 hp, not much. Its 0-60 mph acceleration time of 9.8 seconds is the same lethargic pace as that of the Prius. It corners so well that a driver might be lured into treating the car in a sporty manner, but the small engine and electronically controlled continuously variable transmission cannot respond to that urge. The CT has four driving modes: EV, Eco, Normal and Sport. Don't count on going anywhere in EV, the all-electric mode: We couldn't cross the street from the bank to the grocery store in EV mode.
We were surprised and delighted to discover the CT 200h handles so well, and the 2012 F Sport goes even better. In any model, the cornering is spirited and secure. This Lexus has impressive balance, with a low center of gravity and centralized moment of inertia. The chassis offers high torsional rigidity, using a double-wishbone rear suspension, and sophisticated performance dampers.
The ride quality is very good. We drove hard over a section of road with a lot of lumpy tar patches, and our Lexus took them in stride. The CT 200h is very maneuverable, able to make a U-turn in just 34.2 feet. The brakes are firm, too. It's very quiet inside the cabin at freeway speeds.
Lexus CT 200h ($29,120), CT 200h Premium ($31,750)
The Lexus CT 200h looks like no other Lexus. Some would call this five-door a long hatchback, but it's more like a small wagon. Its overall length is the same as the Audi A3 wagon, and its profile from all angles is very similar. Its shape looks more European than Japanese.
It's quite an attractive car, with smooth and flowing lines, from the contours on the hood to the tidy shoulders, up to the long low roofline and straight back to the spoiler with a cool little lip over the muscular liftgate. The radio antenna adds to the coolness by being located there, rear center. It says Hybrid on the side, in discreet but clear chrome letters.
The only Lexus badge is in front, inside the dark grille pushed forward of the headlamps, and its chrome badge. Lexus describes the nose much more vividly than we might: The grille incorporates a deeper, more sculpted interpretation of the L-finesse signature arrowhead motif, they say. The upper and lower grilles combine to form a unique spindle shape, bringing both bold simplicity and elegant dynamism to the very apex of the vehicle.
The coefficient of drag is a low 0.29, as much of the aero design was decided by wind tunnel testing, a program called Computerized Fluid Dynamics. More attention to detail: there are no less than nine tweaks under the car, to smooth the airflow.
The details are superb. Handsome 10-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels, impressive headlights either with single halogen or twin LED low beams, LED DRLs, black lower airdam, tidy foglights, compact aerodynamic sideview mirrors, a neat chrome outline around the windows, black B-pillar to blend with tinted glass, body-colored door handles, wide rear door openings, LED taillights with horizontal red brake-light stripes that curve around the edge of the car and up. That touch is unique, along with the C-pillar that defines the wagon part, wide at the top and bottom, a sort of distorted hourglass shape.
First time we got in the car, we were greeted with a task that had nothing to do with getting where we were going. A message said: You have a new Lexus Insider article, and there was a choice to make: Read it now, remind me later. We looked for the option that said: I don't care, ever, just go away and stop asking me to do things before I even leave my driveway. But no such luck.
We wanted to shoot the dinging bell that told us we were in reverse, as if we were a forklift or UPS truck, worse, because those heavy-equipment warnings are understandable for the safety of others, not for the driver whom Lexus must presume is brainless. The dinging warning is actually a hazard, not a safety feature, because it interrupts the driver's concentration at a time when he or she needs it: backing up.
If Lexus wants to make reverse safer, they should relocate the lens for the backup camera so it's not blurred by wet weather. If Kia can do it with the Soul that's half the price of the CT 200h, then Lexus should be able to. We were testing a Soul at the same time, and the backup camera's view was clear.
Lexus calls the cockpit airy and spacious, but we'd call it cozy and snug. The steering wheel is a bit flat-bottomed, giving slightly more knee room when climbing in and out, and the driver's seat slides way back, although the driver's right knee is crowded against the center stack tunnel. There's only 32.9 inches of legroom in the rear, so be careful of passengers' toes when you slide the driver's seat back.
The center stack angles downward from the dash to the console, to make the controls easier to reach, and we appreciate it. The CT 200h F Sport we drove had a plastic cellphone holder near the shift lever, which restricted hand access to the two small dials for the heated front seats. It was a clear afterthought because of this awkward location, which seems un-Lexus-like. However, it appears that the problem only exists on models with the optional navigation system, as the cellphone slot is in a different place as standard equipment. Models without navigation use a thinner center console with cupholders fore and aft rather than side-by-side. The forward ends of door pockets are slim, while the back part is shaped for a bottle. Good armrests with good grab handles on the doors.
There's a T-handle shift lever, located up high where an airplane joystick might be. Lexus calls it highly tactile, but we'd just call it big. Maybe it's evidence that the car is not highly focused on shifting gears.
Visibility in the rearview mirror is pinched. Rounded edges around the liftgate window, rear headrests rising into the picture, even the wiper blade, all restrict the view.
You can get real leather if you need it, in black or beige, but standard equipment is a Lexus material we like called NuLuxe, which is cheaper and friendlier to the environment, and nobody will notice it's not leather, not even you after a while. It comes in Black, Ecru (gray) or Caramel. Interior trim can be matte wood, silver metallic or bamboo. Still thinking of the environment, much of the plastic on the CT 200h is vegetable based.
The eco-driving information is simple, without any attempt to be cute or entertaining; that is, no leaves or other dumb distracting stuff. EV, Eco, Normal or Power mode are indicated; fuel mileage at three different starting times; and battery status, when it's charging and when it's drawing.
The 40GB navigation system uses an eight-inch popup screen, its functions controlled with a mouse-like thing called Remote Touch that's easy to use, with good ergonomics. The system includes many music storing options and voice recognition in three languages.
The batteries live behind the back seat and under the cargo compartment, and probably raise the floor just a bit. The cargo area is high and small, with only 26.2 inches from floor to roof. The double wishbone rear suspension increases the cargo volume to the sides a bit, in the absence of strut towers. There's 14.3 cubic feet of storage space behind the rear seat, about the size of the trunk in a compact sedan, but a lot less than the 19.5 cubic feet the Audi A3 manages to find. Lexus stats don't include how much space is gained when the rear seat is dropped flat.
First, the best: the cornering is terrific. It's no accident. The chassis engineer, Mr. Satakata, worked to make the CT 200h feel spirited and secure on twisty roads, and it does. Torsional rigidity is addressed at every chassis opportunity, and there's a double-wishbone rear suspension, low center of gravity, centralized moment of inertia (like a horizontal center of gravity), and performance dampers (first seen on the Toyota Corolla GTS), which are horizontal bars with a gas shock absorbers mounted between the front strut towers and rear frame horns.
The turning circle is a tight 34.2 feet, making city driving a breeze.
Ride quality is excellent. The CT takes lumpy patches in stride. The F Sport package includes shock absorbers that are slightly firmer, and they don't make the ride any less comfortable, but they're not needed.
The only problem with the good cornering is that the powertrain can't keep up. Using the Prius powertrain, the CT 200h makes 98 horsepower from the 1.8-liter Atkinson Cycle gas engine and 80 hp (60 kW) from the generator, for a total of 134 horsepower, not much. Full-throttle acceleration from 0 to 60 takes 9.8 seconds, same pokey pace as the Prius. That's lethargic acceleration performance when you're trying to get on the freeway in front of a big speeding truck.
If Lexus made a CT with the IS 250 engine and 6-speed gearbox, it would be a star. They do make one of those in Japan.
Sport-wise, the CVT, or Continuously Variable Transmission, is a letdown. It doesn't have gears like a normal automatic or manual, or even steps and paddles to shift sequentially, like some non-hybrid cars with CVTs. When you push the CT200h on twisty roads in order to enjoy the handling, the engine rpm's keep surging for the CVT to work, ruining the fun. The surge is all aural, as there is no actual surge felt in the car, but it's still annoying.
It's very quiet inside the cabin; at 75 mph on the freeway you can't hear the engine at all. But it growls and works when you're accelerating to 50 mph.
The Lexus can't compete in the fun-to-drive department with the front-wheel-drive Audi A3 turbodiesel with direct injection, which makes 140 horsepower and gets 30/42 mpg City/Highway. The Audi has the brilliant DSG transmission, and still costs less than the Lexus. With its low emissions (although not as low as a hybrid) it was the 2010 Green Car of the Year, from Green Car Journal. If mileage or emissions aren't your top priority, the gas A3 makes way more power with its 2.0-liter turbo, while getting 21/30 mpg with the manual 6-speed.
The CT has four driving modes: EV, Eco, Normal and Sport. Don't count on going anywhere in EV; our CT wouldn't even run the fan in the driveway in EV-only mode, let alone take us across the street from the bank to the grocery store. Lexus says the CT 200h can go for one mile at 28 mph in EV mode on a full battery charge, and we're not saying it can't; we're just saying easier said than done, and we sure couldn't get there. In EV mode, battery power goes away fast.
Around town, below 25 mph, Eco mode is fine. But if you're accelerating past that, especially up a hill, the CT will shift itself into power (Sport) mode. The differences between Eco, Normal and Sport modes are not in their limit to power, but in how fast it will accelerate to that limit.
Fuel economy for the CT 200h is an EPA-estimated 43/40 mpg City/Highway or 42 mpg Combined, on regular 87-octane gasoline. But during our one-week test of the 2012 model, we didn't see it. Out on the freeway at a steady 68 mph, we got 37.7 mpg; around town, driving like a little old lady, we saw 20.6 mpg. Granted, there were a lot of hills and it was cold so the heater was running, but that's less than half of what the EPA says.
There's a Braking mode, which gets the most out of regenerative brake energy to build up the battery charge. You can definitely feel it, because it slows down the car faster when you back off. Ironically, it slows the car down too fast, around the city when you want that battery charged up; you can't coast or glide as far. But it's great when you're driving down a curvy mountain or on a busy freeway. When you get there you'll have a full tank of battery juice.
Regenerative braking aside, the brakes are nice and firm.
Finally, we performed a test, to answer our own questions about the CVT rpm surge.
We switched on the optional 10-speaker premium sound system, and turned the volume way up with hard rock. Like magic, the perceived surging stopped, because we couldn't hear it. We watched the tach, and it kept radically jumping up and down. The car was totally smooth. This weirdness is why people have a hard time with CVTs. The CVT relationship isn't between speed and rpm, like we're used to, it's between acceleration and rpm, and it's sensitive and sometimes extreme.
We extended our test of this aspect of the CVT. Out on the open freeway, in Sport mode, the tach needle was barely 2000 rpm at 77 mph, and when we accelerated just a bit to 80 mph it leaped to 5000 rpm, with redline at 5500. We got to 82 mph and it maintained that speed at 3500 rpm. Even playing around like that, we got 30 mpg for those few miles.
The Lexus CT 200h is an idea whose time has come. A Prius with the luxury and status of a Lexus, plus better looks and more cargo space. The CT 200h has a quiet cabin, a good ride and excellent cornering. Its drawbacks are wimpy acceleration and over-working CVT.
Sam Moses filed this report after his test drive of the CT 200h in Southern California, followed by one week in the Pacific Northwest.