Review: 2011 Lexus CT200h
By Roger Boylan
The Lexus CT200h is a luxury economy car. At first I didn’t know what to make of it. In the old days, this would have been a contradiction in terms. If you had the dough, you bought a luxury car with a purring V8 and plush leather sofa in front, and if you were poor,like most of us, you pedaled your econobox to and from the workhouse. In the first instance, you were resigned to having a gas guzzler on your hands, because that was the price of luxury; in the latter case, “economy” meant a raucous interior and bouncy ride, but at least you were getting good mileage. And that was that, for a long time. True, there were attempts over the years to winch faux “luxury” onto an economy platform: ”Cimarron by Cadillac” and the Chrysler-Maserati TC come to mind, although I wish they wouldn’t.
Then, in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, the market expanded and SUVs became crossovers and pickups acquired leather interiors and suddenly just about every form of automotive cross-fertilization was fermenting in the lab, from the Suzuki X90 to the Porsche Cayenne. But the CT200h trumps all thosebecause it’s not only a luxury economy car, it’s a luxury hybrid economy car, and a cheap—or should I say “inexpensive?”—Lexus, to boot, with a starting sticker price a hair under $30K (and going up to just under $40K, with all the bells and whistles). OK, that’srelatively inexpensive, but it’s still miles less thanother Lexi.
So, the CT may be basically a Prius in a tux, it’s far and away the mileage champ among upscale hybrids. For simplicity’s sake, it uses the Prius’s tried-and-true 1.8-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine that produces 98 horsepower and electric motor that puts out 80 horses (60 kilowatts), for a total output of 134 HP… “Wait!” I hear you holler:“Ninety-eight plus 80 is 178, genius.” Well, not here, it isn’t, Doctor, because (according to Lexus) the nickel-metal hydride battery can transfer no more than 36 ponies from the electric motor, upshot: 134. Adequate, no more. But remember the mission of this thing–to save you big bucks at the pump. And that it does: Lexus claims 43 mpg city, 40 highway, for a combined figure of 42 mpg (on regular, no less!), and after 250+ miles and a week’s hard driving around my own personal test circuit, the Texas Hill Country, I came close to this figure: 40.2 mpg, according to the CT’s own driver info center. It would have been even higher if I’d kept the Drive Selection dial on the center console in Eco mode, which limits acceleration and holds down the a/c for maximum economy; but there’s life in this old dog yet, so Sport was my mode of choice.
This raises the electric motor’s output, tightens the steering–which I found to be sharp and communicative, definitely one of the car’s best features– and unleashes the gas engine to rev high, producing a most un-Lexus-like snarl during hard acceleration but holding back the standard traction control and stability control (which can’t be turned off completely), so you can actually have some fun on those winding roads. And you do, far more than you would in a Prius, not only thanks to the steering feedback, but also because the CT is built to be more of a driver’s car. It rides low and clings limpet-like to the road and takes corners with aplomb, exhibiting little or no understeer. This isn’t to say that it moves straight ahead with any great authority, not with a mere 134 horses under the hood. I timed 0 to 60, in Sport mode, at a tick under 10 seconds on my trusty 40-year-old Swiss chronometer; Lexus claims 9.8, which seems about right. Not exactly supersonic, but then you bought this thing to save gas, remember? Anyway, the car is so well-engineered it doesn’t feel slow, especially in Sport mode, and its comparatively meager weight—3130 lbs—helps with spryness and maneuverability. Tire noise gets a little intrusive on rough surfaces, thanks to the low-rolling-resistance 17-in. tires, but most of the time the comfort and smoothness are traditional Lexus.
One intriguing detail: choosing Sport mode also changes the backlighting in the instrument panel from a soft blue (pleasant enough, but why not green?) to a stormy red, and magically transforms the hybrid-efficiency gauge next to the speedometer into a tachometer—this last being a clever, but pointless, trick, since the CT’s transmission is a CVT with no manual-control mode, and if you can’t control the gear you’re in, engine revs don’t mean diddly. It looks good, though.
Actually, I thought the car looked pretty good from all angles, despite the startling hue of my tester, something Lexus calls “Daybreak Yellow Mica” but which a female acquaintance with long experience of changing diapers dubbed “baby shit.” Still, you get used to anything, and I came to enjoy the head-turning effect it had in parking lots. Part of the attraction was the sleek profile of the car, of which mine appeared to be the sole example on the roads of South-Central Texas. Lexus coyly avoids using the dread word “hatchback,” but that’s what it is, obviously, and a sleek-looking one at that.
Rival contenders in this segment are the Volvo C30 and Audi A3—especially the TDI version of the latter, with the 140-hp turbodiesel. Both are lookers, no question, but I like the CT’s sharp, contoured lines and purposeful stance. If the Mazda 3 hatch had gone through a sane redesign, instead of getting a grinning-idiot facial transplant, it might have ended up looking like the CT, which would have been a good thing esthetically–although too close a resemblance to a plain old Mazda might not be what buyers in the Lexus segment are looking for. Still, humble resemblances from within the Toyota family are plainly visible: a touch of Corolla here, a hint of Venza there.Overall, it’s a fine-looking package that would look equally at home in the parking lot of your local Mandarin Oriental Ritz-Hilton and in yourown middle-class driveway.
Inside is pretty nice, too, apart from a visual hiccup or two, like the dated-looking radio screen that’s too small to accommodate a full program title. Otherwise, it’s a nice, plush interior. In front of the driver is a sloping dashboard with soft-touch padded surface, an instrument cluster under a binnacle, and a fine, fat, leather-covered steering wheel adorned with stereo and voice-command controls. Tilted at a thoughtful angletoward the driver is the ergonomically logical center stack, atop which sits the shift lever, a simple chrome handle slightly reminiscent of the hand brake on a ’77 truck but much easier to maneuver, with a flick of the wrist up or down. In reverse, an insistent peeping sounds, as if the CT were a tiny forklift; this suggests to me a more silver-haired target demographic than the dynamic young things you see in the Lexus commercials. And wouldn’t it make more sense for the back-up warning to be audible outside? At least reverse gear also produces the rear-view camera in the left quadrant of the rear-view mirror, an excellent feature I’ve commended many times, and an especially useful one in a car like this, in which rearward visibility is somewhat compromised by thick C pillars and a fastback silhouette.
Comfort is considerable, at least in the front, and not too bad in the back, although the less svelte among us would be better off elsewhere. The glove box and assorted storage cubbies are small, but there’s a handy 14.3 cubic feet of luggage space in the back, and I found a surprising amount of hidden room in the cargo area when stashing away a week’s worth of groceries. Safety features, as you would expect,are many and various, and include 4-wheel ABS, 8 airbags of all shapes and sizes, emergency braking assist, cool-looking LED daytime running lights, electronic brake-force distribution, front and rear height-adjustable headrests, post-collision safety system, driver and passenger head restraint whiplash protection system, traction and stability control, and several other useful features, including what Lexus charmingly calls “dusk sensing headlamps.”
All in all, the CT is a unique machine, occupying its own one-vehicle niche, for now. It’s comfortable, well-built, reasonably fun to drive, and relatively inexpensive, for a Lexus. And the kicker, or moral of this tale, is that not once during a week’s worth of pretty intense driving did I go near a filling station, except to pass it by. Assuming Toyota/Lexus reliability to be back– which, given the intensity of their campaign to put things right, I think is reasonable–the Lexus CT200h comes close to being a having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too-mobile. Just make sure yours doesn’t come in baby s… – I mean Daybreak Yellow Mica.