The Lexus CT200h is what you get when you send a Prius to finishing school and a couturier. Hidden beneath the sporty new looks beats the same hybrid system, brakes, suspension and steering used in the Prius. Some updates have been made to the battery pack and computer programming, but the big change is the new and far more attractive body – and of course the Lexus logo.
The new entry-level Lexus places a heavy emphasis on style and a more sporty demeanor. New for 2011, this is the fifth Lexus gasoline-electric hybrid and it is aimed at attracting a new set of customers to the Lexus brand.
The starting price of $30,950 is the least expensive way to become a Lexus new- vehicle owner. My tester had $5,000 Premium package, which brought audio and tire/wheel upgrades in addition to a power moon roof, leather seats, backup camera and a number of lesser additions. But even the base equipment level is worthy of the Lexus branding, as are the build quality and materials used.
The CT has xenon headlights and as many as 89 LEDs for everything from Daytime Running and signal lights to brake lights, placing significantly less load on the electric system.
Compact in size
Developed initially for the fuel-consumption-sensitive and hatchback-happy European market, the CT shares its platform with not only the Prius, but also the Matrix, Corolla and Scion xD. The styling is very modern, low and sleek with a high belt line and a pallet of "interesting" colours. My tester wore several coats of a mustard-like "Daybreak Yellow Mica" paint that generated attention, if not appreciation.
The sloping roofline and slot-like rear window make a major contribution to the appearance – but at the cost of rear seat headroom and visibility. Visibility to the rear is restricted by large C-pillars and a very shallow rear window. One observer exclaimed, "Look, it doesn’t have a rear window."
Lexus on the inside
The interior is well thought out and a pleasant place to spend time. Lexus says 30% of the interior components are made from eco-friendly materials. The floor mats, cargo deck and cargo area side panels from a plant-based plastic and the speakers for both the standard and premium audio systems from bamboo-sourced elements.
The standard seats are covered in "NuLuxe" leather, a synthetic material that feels just like leather but weighs 50% less, contains no volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and reduces C02 resulting from the manufacturing process by 65% compared to other synthetic leathers.
The driver faces a hooded pair of analog instruments with the start-stop button and HVAC controls sharing the upper level of the panel. Resting on a lower layer are the audio and other controls.
While technically a five-passenger vehicle, at least two of them would be uncomfortable. The front seats are spacious and adjust in enough ways to suit almost any driver size or type.
The rear seats, on the other hand, are difficult to get to and lacking in head and knee room. Mark this down as a two-seater with room for occasional use by two more. The large hatch reveals a nicely shaped and finished cargo area that can be easily expanded by folding the rear seat backs down.
Beneath the hood lie the same 1.8-litre Atkinson cycle four-cylinder gasoline engine, electric motor, CVT and front-wheel-drive setup used in the Prius.
The CT is all about saving fuel and the planet and does well on both counts. I averaged 5.9L/100km over a 1,000-km test session that included a preponderance of highway driving, making it the most fuel efficient of the thousands of vehicles I’ve driven over the years, to this point.
But that frugality comes at a cost. Despite its appearance, this is not a sporty automobile by any stretch of the imagination, at least not in terms of performance. The combination of gasoline engine and electric motor produce just 134 horsepower. Factor in 1550 kg of vehicle and the result is lethargic acceleration,
It takes more than 10 seconds to accelerate to 100 km/h, accompanied throughout by a severe drone from an engine held near 5,000 rpm by the CVT transmission. Needless to say passing is accomplished only with some forward planning, patience and lots of clear road..
But, you get used to it. I was frustrated the first few-hundred km but then gradually changed my driving style to reflect the nature of the car. The result was the fuel-sipping consumption number mentioned above.
Slow but agile
A large knob on the centre console selects one of three driving modes – ECO, normal and Sport. There is a separate switch next to it for EV mode, which allows you to drive around under limited conditions at very low speed on pure electric power. Lexus says you can do this for 1.8 km.
Eco and sport modes affect the way the throttle responds to input and activate different background colours in the instrument panel – blue in ECO when you are driving reasonably and red at all times when in Sport mode.
It goes even deeper. ECO also modifies the air conditioner fan speed and Sport mode replaces the Hybrid System Indicator used in the other modes with a tachometer. But if you activate cruise control, it reverts back to the hybrid indicator.
Sport also stiffens the steering and suspension setting and delays the point at which the standard electronic stability control intervenes.
The primarily European focus is evident in the suspension and behavior when thrown into turns. It is somewhat of a dichotomy that a car with such a lack of suds behaves so well when treated like a sports car.
There is some understeer at the limit but decent feedback from the steering wheel and front tires. The ride is decidedly stiffer than your normal Lexus, especially over abrupt surface changes.
Part of this is no doubt due to the optional low-profile tires on the test vehicle. While the CT gets middling marks for its acceleration and performance, I’d give it the CT the gold medal for handling in the hybrid class.
Lexus plans on a small footprint for the CT200h - only 1,200 the first year. That should be doable simply by satisfying the minimal demand for a compact luxury hybrid – after all – it is a class of one.