2011 Lexus CT 200h: Introduction
When I first saw the 2011 Lexus CT 200h in person at this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit I was duly impressed. The car's dynamic "hot hatch" styling definitely stood out among the rest of Lexus' relatively bland offerings—the IS F and LFA excepted—and it seemed like the brand was perhaps on the verge of finding an emotional design language that would help earn some cred with the actual car lovers among us.
In addition, as an early entry in the premium compact segments, the CT showed some forward thinking on the part of Lexus, which hasn't exactly been known as an industry innovator. Yet given consumers' new focus on fuel economy, and with cars like Audi A3 already here and products like the Buick Verano on their way, these niches are going to start filling up fast. Getting in on ye olde ground floor with the CT 200h made great sense, especially since it would (in theory) combine the luxury and quality of a Lexus with the fuel efficiency (and a few parts) from the Toyota Prius.
Oh, and it also was supposed to deliver at least enough over-the-road performance to avoid the fate of the Honda CR-Z, which was met with an underwhelming response when it launched as the first mainstream hybrid with sporting pretensions. The Honda showed how difficult it is to combine fuel efficiency and performance in a mix that would satisfy people looking for both, and Lexus had to avoid that trap if it wanted the CT to avoid that fate.
Certainly the last thing I was worried about was the car's interior quality or craftsmanship. After all, whatever else the CT was, it was a Lexus.
Of course, it was hard to tell much about the car in Detroit, because it was up on a turntable where I couldn't get at it.
That changed recently, when Lexus was kind enough to drop off a 2011 CT 200h in "Fire Agate Pearl" for a week's worth of test driving—and hey, they kicked in a full tank of gas to boot.
The car had an MSRP of $30,900, making it by far the least-expensive Lexus in the lineup, although it was then configured with nearly $6,500 worth of optional content. The bottom line, including $875 worth of delivery/processing/handling fees, came to $38,239. That doesn't seem like a lot for a Lexus, but frankly, I didn't find a lot of Lexus in the CT 200h.
2011 Lexus CT 200h: Exterior
As I've already mentioned, the exterior of the CT 200h is decidedly un-Lexus-like, and that's a good thing. Even better, there's nary a trace of Prius to be found. The two vehicles share enough bits and pieces for some observers to try to play the badge-engineering card, but regardless of what may be going on under the skin, the sheet metal on the Lexus is vastly different from that of the Prius. Unfortunately, it does bear more than a passing resemblance to the zoom-zoom brand's popular compact hatchback—from a number of angles, the CT 200h looks like the Mazda3's better-looking older brother.
The Lexus does have a low, wide stance, accented by the way its wheels take up so much room in the wheel wells, and the subtle, sculpted bodywork just above the rockers provides a bit of BMW, too, with that latter influence extending to a slightly Bangle-y butt treatment. On the other hand, the convex cues back there also help create the illusion that the car has a (very short) rear deck, especially in profile, almost as if Lexus were trying to disguise the fact the car was a hatchback. It's something Chevy did with the old Malibu Maxx, too.
And while the car's beltline didn't feel notably high, the window openings were notably short, putting a lot of emphasis on the car's body (as opposed to its greenhouse). This kind of design cue really helps create the idea that the focus of the CT 200h is on the engine/suspension/wheels—the hardware that provides the car's performance—instead of the amenities in the cabin. The CT 200h's apparent athleticism is then further reinforced by its very aggressive front fascia. Note the way that small lip spoiler below the lower air inlet actually extends out beyond the "bumper" and is the true leading edge of the vehicle. This is a relatively new cue for production vehicles that is clearly drawn from the more massive front aero pieces found on some race cars and other hi-po machines. (Take a look at the recently released Blue Angels Ford Mustang or Monster Najima's record-breaking Pikes Peak car for recent/extreme examples of what I'm talking about.)
There's some interesting business at the rear of the car as well. By using a narrow liftgate, short rear glass, and a stubby rear windshield wiper, while at the same time "inflating" the round lower-rear corners, the CT 200h's wide stance looks even wider, while its hatchback looks even smaller. I'm thinking this is Lexus both hedging its bets a little as regards U.S. buyers' interest in hatchbacks, and using some visual trickery to give a rear-wheel emphasis to a FWD car.
The downside to this is a small rear opening, terrible rear visibility and huge blindspots behind the C-pillars.
2011 Lexus CT 200h: Interior
While the exterior of the CT 200h was a pleasant surprise, the unavoidable fact that this is a $30,000 Lexus began making itself known on the interior. A number of cues were appropriately Lexus-like, especially the design and functionality of the center-stack area. The design is highlighted by the use of multiple levels for different controls and displays, with the audio/driving controls, climate controls, climate vents and flip-up control screen all in their own distinct areas but nonetheless presenting as a sophisticated, integrated whole.
Now, you'll notice I mention a "control screen" and not a touch screen, and that's because the Lexus doesn't use touch-screen technology. In lieu of actually using your finger on the screen itself, you rely on a controller located low on the center console just below the drive-mode dial, and it operates in much the same way as a large computer mouse. You basically rest your palm on the device so that your fingers can adjust a large toggle switch that in turn moves a cursor on the screen, then squeeze buttons on the side to activate your selection. It took a little while to get used to it, but it's a neat bit of gadgetry. Yet there were many times when it seemed like it would be easier, and safer, just to reach out and touch the screen itself. Also, the display always defaults to the nav screen, while I personally would have preferred to leave the audio info on-screen in some cases.
Another prime technology feature is the CT 200h's "gearshift": actually a small device that has often been compared to the head of a golf putter, with shift-by-wire functionality. There isn't even a way to put the car in park with the shifter, you have to use a separate button. This stuff has a certain high-tech appeal, and is wholly fitting for Lexus in general, but I think it's out of place in a vehicle that's supposed to be a driver's car, because it distances you from the working of the vehicle even further than a regular automatic does.
It's at this stage that the car's weaknesses really begin coming to the fore. There were a number of distressing fit-and-finish issues, and one in particular galled me: Sitting in the driver's seat my eyes kept getting drawn to the area where the front speaker on the top of the dashboard was installed, which showcased noticeably poor craftsmanship. Then, the trim on the passenger's side door-pull kept getting pulled off when it was used. It was easy to pop back on, but impossible to get to stay on. (As an aside, the front passenger's door was the only one to have that kind of pull, upsetting my love of vehicular symmetry, as did the rear climate vents that were mounted below only one of the front seats and to the side of only one of the rear seats.)
Materials weren't up to my expectations, with more hard plastics in evidence than I would have liked to see in a Lexus, and as I've noticed on certain Toyota products, including this one, the leather trim on the door panels feels unpadded and hangs off the underlying panel sort of like loose skin.
The front seats were moderately comfortable, as was the front of the cabin as a whole, but passengers in the rear had a tough go of things. I know this was a compact car, but so is my Kia Forte, and in that vehicle, the middle back seat folds down to provide an armrest with cupholders, a feature lacking in the Lexus. Also, I had driven the Chevrolet Volt just prior to the Lexus, and the Chevy uses two bucket seats in the back. That gave rear-seat occupants a more comfortable, passenger-focused environment that Lexus might benefit from trying in the CT 200h. As it was, there weren't even any rear cup holders in the car!
2011 Lexus CT 200h: Performance
There's just no getting around it: Driving the CT 200h was not a satisfying experience. The car is very slow in its "normal" driving mode and acceleration was absolutely glacial in "eco" mode. The only time the car got my adrenaline flowing was when I tried to pull out in front of traffic while "eco" driving, and that's the kind of excitement I can live without. "Sport" mode brought the car's performance up to "almost acceptable," but not enough to get much out of the vehicle's performance-oriented suspension tuning. The car felt nicely planted and exhibited minimal body roll, but honestly, the Lexus' lack of power meant the suspension didn't get many side-to-side challenges, although the up and down of Michigan's ragged roads, which can discompose many a compact, were handled with aplomb.
Also, while the car's regenerative braking system was very effective in charging the battery, this effectiveness caused the brakes to be exceedingly grabby, and they required notably different amounts of effort to produce the same stopping power in different driving scenarios. I realize some of this is inherent to regenerative braking, and I'd be more forgiving if the CT 200h weren't being pitched as a driver's car. But it is. To me, that means Lexus has to up its game and improve the braking, not expect drivers to accept the same kind of performance that may be excused in a hybrid/electric vehicle with a different kind of mission.
That's the real issue: This kind of performance in and of itself wouldn't necessarily be a deal-breaker in another car. After all, the Lexus is EPA rated at 43 mpg city/40 mpg highway/42 mpg combined, and I achieved 44.3 mpg without even trying. The hybrid system engaged aggressively, delivered a fair amount of all-electric driving range, even at speeds topping 35 mph, and recouped its lost energy quite quickly via that regenerative braking.
Someone looking for a semi-upscale hatchback that delivers excellent fuel-economy ratings could do a lot worse. But because the Lexus CT 200h marketing puts so much emphasis on its driving dynamics, I think many members of its target audience could end up disappointed when they get behind the wheel.
2011 Lexus CT 200h: Final Thoughts
Ultimately, the Lexus CT 200h is a car that doesn't know what it wants to be. The bold, aggressive and well-done exterior is wrapped around a powertrain that is radically tuned to deliver high fuel-economy scores but not much in the way of aggressive performance. The car's badging reads "Lexus," but its overall level of craftsmanship screams "Lincoln," and that's obviously not a compliment.
I also admit that part of my disappointment with the CT 200h comes because I drove it so soon after the Chevrolet Volt, and comparisons between the two were unavoidable. Both are similarly priced (after the Volt's $7,500 federal tax credit), and while the Chevy has a different design aesthetic, both provide a relatively similar package of comfort and convenience features. But the Volt is faster, uses less gasoline, displays better craftsmanship and is more passenger friendly. The Volt uses less styrofoam, too.
See, I was checking out the Lexus' surprisingly roomy cargo area, well-equipped with hooks and anchors and storage areas, and I took a glance beneath the cargo-area floor. There's a nice tray-shaped organizer there that I'm sure could be pretty handy in some situations. But it's made out of styrofoam. Black styrofoam, but styrofoam nonetheless. To say I wasn't expecting to see this in a "green" vehicle, and a Lexus at that, would be a serious understatement, and I suppose that stands as a nice bit of symbolism for the Lexus CT 200h.
Despite its outstanding fuel efficiency—which, still, isn't as good as that of the Volt or Prius—the car seemed too much as if Lexus were faking it beneath the surface.
Lexus provided the vehicle for this review