Any way you slice Toyota’s sales figures for the past 5 years, its obvious that despite a ballooning product portfolio Lexus is in a world of hurt. Sales are down, the other import brands have improved their quality and buyers seem to be embracing a more performance-oriented (or is that German-oriented?) luxury style. But rather than re-orienting the Lexus brand to directly take on surging BMW, Audi and Mercedes sales, Toyota has doubled down on its major competitive advantage: hybrids.The recently-launched HS250h was Lexus’s first stab at an entry-premium hybrid, but after just a few months on sale it’s already going nowhere fast. With CAFÉ changes looming, Lexus may eventually benefit from an all-hybrid luxury line-up, but in the meantime the very idea of a luxury hybrid needs a shot in the arm. Is the CT200h hatchback hybrid the answer?
On the surface the CT200h looks like it could be the long-lost hatchback cousin of the IS250/350, but in reality it’s related to the HS250h, itself a derivative of the European Toyota Avensis. Despite sharing relatively few parts with the Toyota Prius, some critics have slammed the HS250h for being nothing more than a “Lexus Prius,” despite the fact that it comes with a version of the more powerful Camry Hybrid drivetrain. If that’s a problem for you on principle (it really shouldn’t be), you might want to stop reading now. Under the CT200h’s hood lurks the same 1.8L Atkinson cycle engine and Hybrid Synergy Drive system as the current generation Prius.
One of the many complaints about the HS250h has been its lackluster fuel economy and weak performance. Of course the HS250h could have been forgiven if Ford hadn’t released the Lincoln MKZ hybrid around the same time. The Lincoln hybrid is considerably larger than the HS, matches the Lexus for 0-60 acceleration, and beats it by a full 6 MPG on the freeway. In order to correct the problem, Lexus put the HS/CT shared platform on a diet and the result is that the CT200h tips the scales at 3,130lbs a 550lb weight reduction over the HS. Sounds good, right? The answer is a resounding maybe. The weight loss certainly makes the CT200h feel more nimble and no doubt contributes to the higher EPA numbers of 42/41/42 (highway/city/combined), but much of this improvement comes from swapping out the 187HP Camry Hybrid powerplant in favor of the relatively anemic 134HP Prius engine. Comparisons to Honda’s weak-sauce CR-Z are inevitable and not entirely unwarranted.
Naturally the forums will be alight with chatter proclaiming the CT200h to at last be “the real Lexus Prius,” but (as usual) the comments will be missing a few key details. The CT is six inches shorter than the Prius overall and rides on a four inch shorter wheelbase, and aside from the engine and Hybrid Synergy Drive system, the CT200h shares few parts with the Prius. Unfortunately one of the things the CT200h doesn’t share is the Prius’s 51/48/50 MPG fuel economy numbers (EPA, highway/city/combined) which is curious since the Prius is not much lighter than the CT.
Behind the wheel it is obvious to anyone who has spent time in Lexus’ other models that the CT200 is expected to be the cheapest Lexus available, starting at around $30,000. It would be unfair to say the materials are cheap, but they are certainly less than I would expect from Lexus. The dashboard and rear door trim plastics are particularly disappointing, and the memory seat controls look like an aftermarket addition. Fortunately the steering wheel really shines; it’s well-weighted, perfectly-shaped and feels exactly the way it should.
And in general, if you keep your hands to the controls, you’ll be OK. A 110 mile test drive gave ample opportunity to become acquainted with the interior and the only real quibble I have is the Lexus Navigation system. The system uses the same mouse/joystick like controls that have been spreading across the Lexus lineup, but the picture quality is less than inspiring and I don’t find the controller to be particularly user friendly. The location of the Nav screen up high on the dash doesn’t make using the system any easier.
Gadget lovers will appreciate the standard Bluetooth hands-free system with Bluetooth audio streaming, full iPod and USB device control, XM Radio, keyless go, dual-zone climate control, LED tail lamps and “bamboo charcoal speakers” in the audio system. Conspicuously absent is a Mark Levinson sound system available in other Lexus models. For those who want to option up their CT, Lexus offers a power moonroof, full LED headlamps, hard drive based nav system, adaptive cruise control with collision warning, in-mirror backup camera and several wood trim options. Keeping in mind that the CT200h will be the entry-level Lexus, the option list is fairly extensive.
In the bright light of day, the CT200h turns from an entry-level gadget lover’s dream to a mixed bag. Lexus is billing the CT200h as a sporty compact luxury hatch, but they only nailed half the formula… and let’s just say the CT is undoubtedly a compact hatch. Lexus says the competition for the CT is the Volvo C30, Audi A3 and the BMW 1-Series (personally, I would have forgotten about the 1-Series and included the Mini, but what do I know?). Luxury is in the eye of the beholder, and though the CT’s interior is a nice place to be compared to the self-proclaimed competition, it falls short of the level of luxury found even in Volvo’s C30. Sure the CT has better electronic toys (and a hybrid drivetrain), but as a place to spend time, the C30 is demonstrably better.
Our pre-defined route took us out on California State Route 243, portions of which were moderately twisty and well banked. On these winding mountain sections, the CT holds the road with finesse. The chassis is well behaved if not overeager, and even the electric power steering fails to detract from the mountain carving fun. Sadly the same cannot be said of the 134HP hybrid drive. Adding insult to underperformance, the sounds coming from under the hood cannot really be described as either sporty or luxurious. It’s not as bad as some four-bangers, but it’s not up to the standard of a brand built on admirably unobtrusive drivetrains. But even this could be forgiven if the CT’s acceleration was even remotely satisfactory, but there’s the final chink in the sporty hatchback armor: the CT’s manufacturer estimated 9.8second 0-60, which is actually slower than a Prius. This makes sense when you consider the Prius is lighter, but the end result is something along the lines of a softer Jetta TDi that doesn’t handle quite as well. Yes, it’s taut and composed in the corners, but when the road straightens you get nothing.
As I flew home from Palm Springs I was quite possibly more puzzled about the CT200h than I was when my journey began. It’s not a new paradigm of efficiency. In fact it’s only marginally better than the Lincoln MKZ hybrid that rendered its bigger brother irrelevant (although it is cheaper). It’s not particularly sporty either (do I need to say more than “slower than a Prius”?). And even at $30,000 (and up, if you want all the toys) it won’t be a huge amount cheaper than the HS250, which delivers more room and a bit peppier performance along with a more premium feel. Since the CT200h was designed to strengthen Lexus sales in Europe, it makes a certain amount of sense. Europeans are far more likely to accept a moderately prices cheap and cheerful small hatch with a nearly 10 second 0-60 time that is marketed as “sporty.” The same cannot however be said of Americans, and at the end of the day the CT200h appears to be a decent landing at the wrong airport.
Lexus provided airfare, lodging and hospitality for this press launch event