The Lexus CT 200h is a five-door hatchback powered by a hybrid gas-electric powertrain based on the Toyota Prius. The CT 200h is 6 inches shorter than the Prius, or about the same overall length as the Audi A3 wagon. It was introduced as a 2011 model and received minor styling revisions for 2014.
For 2015, Lexus CT 200h gets few changes. The 2015 CT 200h gets a new Siri Eyes-Free mode, an upgraded Lexus Enform App Suite that adds Slacker, and an updated HomeLink garage door opener. Turn signals adopt the three-flash system, and 2015 models equipped with navigation get additional voice commands.
The CT 200h is a hybrid and works very similarly to a regular gas-powered car. You don’t plug this car in. You simply 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 short periods of time. The 2015 CT 200h achieves an EPA-estimated fuel-economy rating of 43/40 mpg City/Highway (42 mpg Combined). We got 38 mpg while not exactly striving to drive green.
The Lexus CT 200h F Sport model has slightly firmer springs than the standard model, but its sports appeal is mainly aesthetic: black leather, racy 17-inch alloy wheels, a mesh rendition of the front grille, big rear spoiler, aluminum pedals, perforated leather steering wheel, titanium-gray metal instrument panel trim, and F Sport badging (including a new rear badge).
Inside, the cabin is cozy with a comfortable driver’s seat. Everything is easy to reach. Rear-seat legroom is tight. Cargo space is about the same as a compact sedan, smallish for a hatch. The view rearward is restricted, so we recommend the optional rearview camera that comes with the navigation system. The next-gen multimedia system includes HD Radio and real-time traffic and weather.
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 motor/generator, for a total of 134 hp. Its 0-60 mph acceleration time of 9.8 seconds is the same lethargic pace as that of the Prius. Because it corners so well, a driver might be lured into treating the car in a sporty manner, but the small engine and continuously variable transmission cannot respond to that urge. The CT has four driving modes: EV, Eco, Normal and Sport. Don’t count on going far in EV, the all-electric mode.
We were surprised and delighted to discover the CT 200h handles so well, and the F Sport goes even better. In any CT 200h, the cornering is spirited and secure. This Lexus has impressive balance, with a low center of gravity and centralized moment of inertia (the spin-out factor). The chassis offers high torsional rigidity, using a double-wishbone rear suspension, and sophisticated performance dampers.
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. Brakes are firm, too. It’s very quiet inside the cabin at freeway speeds.
Lexus CT’s five-door design might be seen as a long hatchback or a small wagon. Overall length is about the same as the Audi A3 wagon, and its profile is similar.
The new family nose added for 2014 changed its image, moving it more upscale. The bottom corners of the spindle shape are wider than before, and the pinch point is lower, to add stance. The spindle grille works on the CT, especially on the F Sport model, hiding the front bumper behind uninterrupted black mesh. A Lexus badge lives inside the dark grille that pushes forward to create a powerful, more three-dimensional form, according to Lexus. So you might say that the CT has a 3D face.
From the sides and rear, the CT 200h looks like no other Lexus. The shape appears more European than Japanese, and its profile from all angles is similar to that of the Audi A3. The design was determined largely by wind-tunnel testing.
The Lexus CT makes boxy look stylish, with smoothly flowing yet edgy lines, from the contours on the hood to the tidy shoulders, up to the long roofline, and straight back to the spoiler above the muscular liftgate. It extends from the top of the C-pillar, which matches the shape of the spindle grille, only it’s vertical. A sharkfin antenna completes the stylish effect. The details of the design, trim and wheels are flawless.
The coefficient of drag is a low 0.29, with much of the aero design decided by wind tunnel testing, a program called Computational Fluid Dynamics. More attention to detail: there are no less than nine tweaks under the car, to smooth the airflow.
Other excellent details include five-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels, sharp headlamps with single halogen or twin LED low beams, LED daytime running lights, aerodynamic sideview mirrors, tidy chrome outlining around the windows, black B-pillars to blend with tinted glass, body-colored door handles, wide rear door openings, and LED taillights.
The bumper design emphasizes the horizontal structure at the rear, with a dark gray fascia shaped for stance, and trapezoidal red reflectors inlayed into the corners for pizzazz.
The base CT 200h comes in six colors, including new Eminent White Pearl. A black roof is available with any color. Each car gets a final spray over the paint, with a scratch-resistant, self-restoring top coat. We like the sound of that.
The F Sport has a way better looking spindle grille, all black mesh, a bigger and cooler rear spoiler, and hot two-tone wheels. Ultra White and Ultrasonic Blue Mica are exclusive F Sport colors.
First time we got in the Lexus CT, 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 driving a forklift or UPS truck, although at least their beeps are for the safety of others, not to remind the driver he’s going backwards as if he couldn’t figure it out for himself. Those beeps are dangerous, because they’re distracting, and sharp focus is needed while backing up.
We found the cockpit cozy and snug, which is the opposite of airy and spacious. The flat-bottomed steering wheel with controls would be a benefit, but a tall driver’s knees will rub when climbing in and out, and his right knee is likely to be crowded against the center stack tunnel. The seat slides way back. There’s only 32.9 inches of legroom in the rear, so be careful of your rear-seat passenger’s toes when you slide the driver’s seat back.
The hybrid batteries live behind the back seat and under the cargo compartment, and raise the floor just a bit. The cargo area is high and small, with only 26.2 inches from floor to roof. A horizontal 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.
Lexus says that more than 94 changes were made to the 2014 model, in order to reduce vibration and harshness, and to make the cabin super quiet, as opposed to just very quiet, which it already was. For example, the inlet duct design for the engine is both more efficient and quieter than before.
The center stack angles downward from the dash to the console, to make the controls easier to reach, and we appreciate it. Switchgear has a metallic film finish. The forward ends of door pockets are slim, while the back part is shaped for a bottle. Doors have good armrests and grab handles. Visibility in the rearview mirror is pinched by the liftgate window, rear headrests, and wiper blade.
You can get real leather if you need it, but we like the standard NuLuxe; nobody will notice it’s not leather, not even you after a while, and it’s less expensive while being friendlier to the environment. It comes in Black, Caramel, and Parchment. Bamboo trim is available, as is perforated Flaxen leather. Much of the plastic on the CT 200h is vegetable-based, helping to keep the car green.
The eco-driving information is simple, without any attempt to be cute or entertaining with leaves or other distractions. EV, Eco, Normal or Power mode is indicated, along with fuel mileage at three different starting times; and battery status (when it’s charging and when it’s drawing).
The available Lexus Display Audio (LDA) and Navigation multimedia system is made more user-friendly in the areas of hands-free, voice recognition, and console controller: the second-generation Remote Touch Interface (RTI). This next-generation multimedia system includes HD Radio, traffic and weather. Cache radio lets you store a segment of audio for up to 15 minutes, to listen to it later.
The sound quality of the Lexus audio systems, both standard six-speaker and premium 10-speaker, are enhanced by the world’s first bamboo loudspeaker technology. Bamboo fiber, plant opal and charcoal are combined in an injection molding process to create the industry’s thinnest loudspeaker diaphragm.
The shift lever with a leather wrapping is located high, suggesting that shifting gears is not a high priority in this car. More on that later.
The F Sport interior is all its own, with upgraded upholstery including synthetic leather side bolsters and headrests, fabric center panels, black headliner, and enhanced stitching.
The Lexus CT was introduced as a 2011 model with considerable fanfare about the rigidity of the chassis, but for 2014 it was strengthened with more spot welds, making us wonder if they missed it the first time. Also, spring rates were changed, shock absorbers improved with a new valve, and the rear stabilizer bar optimized for ride, which is excellent. The CT takes lumpy patches in stride.
Cornering is terrific. The chassis engineer, Mr. Satakata, a racer himself, worked to make the CT 200h feel spirited and secure on twisty roads, and it does. 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 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.
The problem with the CT’s terrific handling is that it makes the car feel like a missed opportunity. It could be a fantastic answer, if it weren’t for the Prius powertrain. If Lexus made a CT with the gasoline-burning IS 250 engine and 6-speed gearbox, it would be a star. They do make one of those for Japan, but not for the U.S. Instead, it’s a hybrid, intended to please environmentally-concerned drivers, even if performance fails to impress enthusiasts.
With 98 horsepower from the 1.8-liter Atkinson Cycle gas engine and 80 hp (60 kW) from the generator, the total of 134 horsepower isn’t much. Full-throttle acceleration from 0 to 60 takes 9.8 seconds, the same pokey pace as the Prius. Snail-like acceleration is no fun when you’re trying to get on the freeway in front of a big speeding truck, though hybrid-powertrain proponents are certainly less likely to feel deprived.
Especially from the point of view of the chassis, 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 CT 200h on twisty roads in order to enjoy the handling, the engine rpm keeps 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 to drivers who’d rather have actual gears.
We performed a test, to answer our own questions about this alleged CVT surge. We switched on the 10-speaker premium sound system, turned the volume way up with hard rock, and floored the accelerator at 60 mph. 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 some 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.
The Lexus CT cannot compete in the fun-to-drive department with the front-wheel-drive Audi A3 turbodiesel with direct injection, which makes 140 horsepower and is rated at 31/43 mpg City/Highway. The Audi has the brilliant DSG transmission, and still costs less than the Lexus. And it too has low emissions, a past winner of Green Car of the Year, from Green Car Journal.
The CT has four driving modes: EV, Eco, Normal and Sport. Don’t count on going anywhere in EV; our CT 200h wouldn’t even run the fan in the driveway in EV-only mode, let alone take us across the street. 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 we couldn’t. 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. Out on the freeway at a steady 68 mph, we got 37.7 mpg; around town, driving like a little old lady, we saw only 20.6 mpg. Granted, there were a lot of hills and it was cold so the heater was running.
The brakes are nice and firm on their own. There’s also a Braking mode, which gets the most out of regenerative brake energy to build up the battery charge. You can feel it slow down the car when you back off, sometimes too much. In the city you can’t smoothly glide up to a red light and let your speed drop naturally. 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.
The F Sport package isn’t too expensive, and it’s worth it for the better looks alone. Performance-wise, it benefits from sport-tuned coil spring settings and optimized front/rear roll rigidity distribution. But the plain CT corners and rides well enough.
The Lexus CT 200h is a perfect idea: a Prius with the luxury and status of a Lexus, plus better looks. The CT 200h has a quiet cabin, a good ride and excellent cornering. For drivers who don’t favor hybrids, its drawbacks are wimpy acceleration and its 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.