Over the past twenty years, Lexus has redefined what Americans expect in a luxury car -- but now they're introducing a small five-door hybrid hatchback that prioritizes efficiency over luxury. Have the staff at Lexus flipped their lids, or have they stumbled on to the Next Big Thing? Read on. Estimated price range $33,000 - $40,000, EPA fuel economy estimates 42 MPG city, 41 MPG highway.
First glance: Innovation or insanity?
When I first laid eyes on the CT 200h, I thought someone at Lexus had blown a circuit breaker. A compact 5-door hatchback hybrid? Was Lexus holding some sort of competition to create the least Lexus-like Lexus? (Winner: HS 250h.)
A little discussion with the Lexus folks set me straight. The CT 200h was designed for Europe, where small, high-MPG hatchbacks are the norm and good handling is more important than rapid acceleration. Lexus knows this is a small market segment in the US; the cars against which the CT will be pitched -- the Audi A3, the BMW 1-series, and the Volvo C30 -- only sell about 1,400 units per month combined. (For comparison, Toyota moves about 30,000 Camrys per month.) Looking at it that way, Lexus' modest sales goal of 1,000 CT 200hs per month seems a bit ambitious
So why even bother bringing the CT200h to the USA? Lexus sees this as an opportunity to attract a new type of buyer to Lexus dealerships: Younger, with more liberal tastes and more sporting expectations. Being branded as an old person's car is the kiss of death for a luxury brand; in a way, Lexus is trying to battle Buick/Lincoln syndrome before it has a chance to set in.
Even understanding the brand's motives, it's odd to see a five-door Lexus (although I really dug the old IS 200 Touring station wagon). Up front the CT looks like a proper Lexus, but the truncated back end takes some getting used to. The design shares many styling cues with other Toyota hatchbacks (Lexus is a division of Toyota); there's a distant family resemblance to the Matrix as well as the European-market Auris and Aygo. At first glance I thought the CT was ugly as all get-out, but as I saw more and more on the road -- during our press preview, we basically took over a couple of small towns in France -- the CT's looks grew on me.
In the Driver's Seat: Size (or lack thereof) matters
Like the exterior styling, the CT 200h's cabin is a departure for Lexus: Less opulent, more functional. The dashboard (link goes to photo) comes exclusively in black, although the seats are available in other colors and the dash trim inserts can be swapped out for aluminum or wood grain. The CT is the first Lexus to offer fake leather upholstery; Lexus calls it "NuLuxe", presumably because "vinyl" doesn't sound very Lexus-like. It's fairly convincing stuff, thinner and more pliant than other faux-leather seats I've sat in, though it's obvious from the feel that it's not real cowhide. (Before you hammer on Lexus for going cheap, bear in mind that most Mercedes and BMWs use fake leather.) Genuine perforated leather is available as an extra-cost option.
I was surprised to find the front seats rather lacking in thigh support, but not surprised to find the back seats lacking in legroom; Europeans aren't as spoiled for rear-seat space as we are. Still, if you frequently travel four-up, the CT 200h isn't the best choice. Ditto if you like to take family vacations: The cargo bay sounds roomy at 14.3 cubic feet, but a lot of that volume comes courtesy of the upright rear window. In reality, the CT is better suited to groceries than suitcases. Good thing the rear seat folds down flat.
In its favor, the CT 200h has got plenty of nifty high-tech options, including rain-sensing wipers, in-mirror backup camera, dynamic cruise control (which matches the speed of the car in front), and a navigation system that uses Lexus' excellent mouse-like controller. But I was surprised to see that, unlike other Lexus models, a Mark Levinson stereo is not on the options list. The basic stereo is good, but not audiophile quality, and the integrated head unit makes fitting a replacement difficult.
On the Road: Delivers what it promises
The CT 200h shares its powertrain hardware with the Toyota Prius, although Lexus says the CT's control module programming is unique. The 1.8 liter engine and electric motor produce a total of 134 horsepower, and Lexus quotes a 0-60 time of 9.8 seconds. That may sound underwhelming, but in real-world driving the CT 200h has plenty of usable power to leap into a gap on the freeway or pass a slow-moving truck on a two-lane road. EPA fuel economy estimates are expected to come in at 42 MPG city and 41 MPG highway, and I had no trouble topping 45 MPG during two days of gentle back-road driving.
Unique to the CT 200h is a dial that provides three driving modes: Eco, Normal and Sport. Eco is pretty self-explanatory; it relaxes the throttle response and helps boost fuel economy. Sport mode increases both accelerator pedal response and the voltage available to the electric motor at part throttle; it also changes the look of the instrument panel, going from blue lighting to red and changing the hybrid power gauge to a real-live tachometer. It also increases the heft of the steering, although I didn't notice a huge difference in the way the car went around corners. (At least the red gauge lighting makes it feel sportier.) The CT has a firmer, louder ride than other Lexus models -- remember, it was designed for Europe -- and while it's no Infiniti G37, it's certainly a lot more entertaining to drive than most Lexus models.
Journey's End: Different is good... and different
After a couple of days behind the wheel of the CT 200h, I was surprised to find how much I liked it, especially considering the luxury-car culture shock I got when I first saw it. Once you get over the fact that it's not intended to attract the same people who would buy an ES 350 or an LS 460, the CT 200h starts to make a lot of sense.
Lexus has not yet announced pricing for the CT 200h, but they say it will start just beneath the IS250, so figure around $33,000 for starters. The CT has an extensive options list, so it will most likely top out above $40k.
In my opinion, the CT 200h is streets better than Lexus' other dedicated hybrid, the $35,975 HS 250h, which has more room but returns fuel economy unbecoming of a hybrid. The CT's stiffest competition comes from the diesel-powered Audi A3 TDI. The A3 is priced in the same neighborhood, but with fuel economy estimates of 30 MPG city/42 MPG highway, the A3 is at its best on the open road. If you do most of your driving in town, consider the Lincoln MKZ Hybird, which is rated at 41 MPG city (but only 36 highway). It's pricier than the CT, but it's also quieter, more comfortable, and has a bigger back seat and a more usable trunk. And if maximum fuel economy is your goal, why not buy a plain ol' Toyota Prius? It's not as luxurious as the CT, but it's more practical and gets even better fuel economy.
Bottom line: The CT 200h may not be for everyone, but I think it's an excellent addition to the Lexus lineup. It's small and innovative, but it still manages to feel like a proper Lexus. If you're looking for a green luxury car -- and if you have an open mind -- the CT 200h definitely deserves a test drive. -- Aaron Gold