2011 Lexus CT 200h HD Video Review

Visualize 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?  If they’re visible through dark tinted glass, happy and carefree. Exciting music and frenetic editing completes the experience.

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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 .  Some would say it’s the first from the brand that truly delivers what people expect in in a gas/electric vehicle. Fuel efficient, practical, stylish, comfortable and sport (yes, sporty) 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.

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Consider this more of a preview.  I’ve had just a couple hours of driving time at a Lexus sponsored event in Palm Springs, CA and you can’t get one until March 2011. In my short time with the CT 200h I’ve found it 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.

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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. 2011-lexus-ct-200h-077

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.

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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.

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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. There’s even a small additional electronic heater for instant windshield defrost, handy when things get chilly.

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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.

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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.

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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 swoopy C pillar gives the rear a heavier appearance, there are available LED headlamps up front. 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.

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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 definite 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.

FULL MEGA GALLERY BELOW.  ALL STILL PHOTOS PROVIDED BY LEXUS.

2 Comments

  1. josephfromny says:

    Not long ago, I test drove this car back-to-back with a Prius. The good news are that its styling is sexier than that of a Prius (of course, that is not saying a whole lot but I think it actually looks as good as, if not better than, a VW GTI), the interior materials are noticeably nicer than those in the Prius and the steering and handling are sportier than those of the Prius. The ride is noticeably harsher but acceptable, which is what one would expect giving this car’s sporting intentions. The main problems with this car can be summed up in two words: power and value.
    In terms of power, CT 200h is actually a bit slower than a Prius in a straightline because it is more than 100 pounds heavier. While CT offers more speed and performance through corners than a Prius, it is difficult to call a car “sporty” when it loses a drag race to a Prius. We are talking about a 10.5 seconds to 60 mph (I know that Tom uses a 9.5 sec. 0-60 time and Lexus reports a 9.8 sec time but this is not what is being reported by most testers out there) and with a gas mileage that trails the Prius’ mpg by about 8 to 9 mpg — not good. They really should have come up with a way to fit a more powerful gasoline motor or put in a turbocharger to increase the output (Honda is working on a turbocharged version of its underpowered CRZ). Alternatively, they should have tried harder to make this car lighter than a Prius, especially given the substantial amount by which they shrank the passenger and cargo volume.
    So, if the sporty hybrid proposition doesn’t work, then the question is what value does it offer for its $5,000 premium over a Prius in addition to better styling, sharper handling and richer interior materials? I did a thorough comparison of features and there are only three significant additional features that are offered by CT that are not offered on any Prius trim: power driver’s seat (with available memory), sportier front seats and regular sunroof. Prius doesn’t offer power driver seats (neither Prius nor CT offers power front passenger seat at any price) or sports seats at any price and it doesn’t offer a regular sunroof (it only offers an optional sunroof with solar panel that is part of a package costing more than $4,000). Other than this, one can get virtually all other features offered by Lexus in a Prius, for about $3,000 to $5,000 less. There are also some oddities in Lexus’ feature offerings. For instance, they only offer driver power seat. Front passenger has a manual seat. I understand manual seats are cheaper and lighter but come on… Also, from Lexus’ website, it doesn’t look like its priciest option package that has Dynamic Radar Cruise Control and Pre-Collision System doesn’t include Advanced Parking Guidance System or Lane Keep Assist, which is included in Prius V Technology Package. I don’t know if the information on the website is wrong but I don’t understand why Lexus’ priciest technology package should be missing items available in a Prius.
    Here are all of the major configurations for a Prius and a CT200h:
    Prius Configurations (all prices include Delivery, Processing & Handling Fee):
    1) Prius II with no options: $24,280
    2) Prius III with no options (with Bluetooth and premium radio with XM but no navigation, sunroof or leather): $25,280
    3) Prius III with navigation system (with navigation, Bluetooth and premium radio with XM but no sunroof or leather): $27,210
    4) Prius III with solar roof navigation system (with navigation, Bluetooth and premium radio with XM and SOLAR sunroof but no leather): $29,010
    5) Prius IV with no options (with leather, Bluetooth and premium radio with XM but no navigation or sunroof): $28,080
    6) Prius IV with navigation system (with leather, Bluetooth and premium radio with XM, navigation and Safety Connect telematics but no sunroof): $30,460
    7) Prius IV with solar roof navigation system (with leather, Bluetooth and premium radio with XM, navigation, Safety Connect telematics and SOLAR sunroof): $32,260
    8) Prius V with no options (with leather, Bluetooth, premium radio with XM but no navigation or sunroof): $29,550
    9) Prius V with Technology Package (with leather, Bluetooth, premium radio with XM, navigation, Safety Connect telematics, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, Pre-Collision System, Lane Keep Assist, Advanced Parking Guidance System but NO SOLAR sunroof or any other sunroof — no sunroof offered in Prius V): $34,630
    CT 200h Configurations (all prices include Delivery, Processing & Handling Fee):
    1) CT 200h Base with no options (leatherette, driver power seat, premium radio with XM, Safety Connect telematics and Bluetooth but no navigation or moonroof): $29,995
    2) CT 200h Premium with no options (leatherette, driver power seat, premium radio with XM, Safety Connect telematics, Bluetooth and moonroof but no navigation): $31,775
    3) CT 200h Premium with homelink and upgraded speaker package (homelink, leatherette, driver power seat, premium radio with XM, Safety Connect telematics, Bluetooth and moonroof but no navigation): $32,900
    4) CT 200h Premium with navigation package (homelink, leatherette, driver power seat, premium radio with XM, Safety Connect telematics, Bluetooth, moonroof, and navigation): $35,320
    5) CT 200h Premium with technology package (homelink, leather, driver power seat, premium radio with XM, Safety Connect telematics, Bluetooth, moonroof, navigation, memory driver seat, rain-sensing windshield, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, Pre-Collision System but no Advanced Parking Guidance System or Lane Keep Assist): $39,365
    As you can see, Prius is substantially less expensive than CT 200h while offering similar performance in speed and significantly better fuel economy.
    Also, by trying to create a tighter, sportier package, Lexus got rid of almost 4 inches of rear legroom, which means that the back seats are not good places to be for tall passengers. The CT is also much lower to the ground and one needs to exert a bit more effort to get in and out of the car than with the Prius.
    Prius is noticeably larger in every way than CT, in passenger and baggage capacity. It is also quieter and smoother/softer riding than CT. So as a family car or commuter car, Prius is less expensive, more spacious and more comfortable than CT and it offers much better value for your money. Unless you want sharper styling and handling, regular moonroof, power driver seat and sport seat and believe that these are worth the extra $3-5K and the sacrifices in spaciousness and comfort, CT may be the car for you. Otherwise, stick with a Prius.

    • TV says:

      Sorry this didn’t come up sooner. You obviously spent effort on it and it got caught up in limbo land. Just saw it and five other posts in the system’s dashboard. My apologies.