By on November 25, 2010

A Lexus without wood is like Dolly Parton without tits. The music of the experience takes your breath away and yet… you just feel something is missing. Is it the smile? The wig? When I looked at the press release clippings of the Lexus CT200h, I had trouble with the entire car. You want a sporty hybrid with the acceleration of a 15-year-old Camry to compete with the Audi A3 and BMW 1-Series? I know Toyota wants to build more hybrids. But as the owner of two hybrids, I thought this car would represent a Cimmaron moment for hybrids and the Lexus brand. Then I saw it in person. Perception and reality battled it out, and this is what I found.

When an enthusiast looks at the exterior of the CT200h, one word comes to mind: Scion. This car has the design of an expensive, sporty Scion with absolutely none of the ostentation and presence of a traditional Lexus. There is a bit of chrome on the grille, the usual circular L logo, and an awful lot of LED’s on the tail. It does have a presence about it… but it’s more of a youthful vehicle than anything Toyota has ever released under the Lexus brand.

Once you view the CT in person from all angles, it has a flow to its design. Photographing the car from one angle after another makes it look like a discombobulated mass: IS front end, RX rear end, generic bulbous Scion in the middle. In the flesh everything comes into focus and the car looks ten times better.

When you open the door another word quickly leaps to mind: ‘tight’. This is the tightest vehicle I have experienced since the RX-8. Everything is close at hand and to your knee. In fact, I felt even more coddled and claustro in this car than in my first generation Honda Insight. I bumped my head on the roof-mounted grab handle just looking to make a turn and my six-foot-plus AARP-eligible co-rider decided to stick to the passenger seat for much of the ride due in great part to the lack of space.

As an enthusiast, I love the CT’s sports car-like driving position. But folks who battle traffic instead of winding country roads will come to despise it. Outstretched arms and tight quarters in a car that feels small grows old quickly. But at least we have acceleration and handling right?

Well, acceleration is marginal at best, with sixty arriving in the mid-9’s, and and the chassis is taut to the extreme. You feel every one of the road’s imperfections. Changing the settings to ‘comfort’ didn’t make much of a difference. Toyota believes that folks in their 30s and 40s want a hard-riding sports hybrid. If that’s the case so be it. I love my 2001 Insight but it will take a special type of customer to accept this car’s ride and class-trailing speed.

Those in temperate climates with smooth roads will welcome the CT’s fierce grip. On the road, the hatchback feels planted in a way few touring cars can emulate. Thanks to a low center of gravity and the sturctural rigidity of a lead pipe, this Lexus evokes a sports car experience that few four-door competitors can match at the $30k price level. Hybrid or not, the CT makes you experience the drive.

On the road I averaged a bit over 42 miles per gallon. Phenomenal given that I hammered the throttle every time an open road beckoned. Like its drama-free Prius sibling,the CT could have gone north of 60 with a lot of hypermiling, but this car does not encourage a light foot.

In ‘Normal’ and ‘Eco’ modes the hybrid powertrain performs the same as in the Prius, and so struggles to match the quick mid-range acceleration of a sports compact. I get 59 mpg with my Honda Insight on a daily basis, but if I had to drive the CT I would never leave it off of Sport. Even with the mileage penalty… it’s the first hybrid I’ve ever driven that seems happy when properly revved.

Sport mode electronically substitutes a tachometer for the all-too-dippy ‘Ecometer’ and spikes the battery juice. The CT has no trouble finding it’s mojo once it has the extra power. ‘Sport’ modes adds 150V AC power for driving the electric motor thanks to a clever power inverter that converts the DC power from the battery. In real-world driving this extra push in power combined with outstanding handling and fuel economy makes the CT a fun-filled and frugal Scion… I mean a de-wooded Lexus.

It’s enough to make the CT a competitive alternative in a miniscule segment where the Audi A3 TDI is absolutely dominant and the Volvo C30 and BMW 1-Series are trailing. America has barely a minutiae of interest in the ‘entry level premium sports compact segment’. Would you believe only 1,500 units a month for all three models combined? Yes Americans rarely like to spend $30k+ for a long description that amounts to small expensive cars with limited horsepower.

That’s the first challenge I see with this vehicle. The second is that the CT is a first-generation acronym going up against well-pedigreed Europeans. Lexus disagrees, but I would also wager that the MINI and GTI will be hellacious competitors. That’s not all. The Prius still offers 20% better fuel economy and the Fusion Hybrid has become a popular and established presence in the $30k+ market. The CT will have a tough time getting noticed in this premium crowd.

The final challenge Lexus will face: staying the course. Toyota always struggles with establishing a sporty car in the marketplace… and keeping it there. Only the IS has found a sporty niche within the entire Toyota/Scion/Lexus portfolio circa 2010. Celica, Supra, MR2, SC, are all dead to those looking for a new sporty Toyota in the USA. Such a shame

Otherwise Toyota North America currently offers the stubby Scion tC (that was neglected for several recent years) and a couple of limited production ‘F’ series vehicles. This lack of sport pedigree will mean the CT will have serious trouble attracting the up-and-coming luxury car buyers who consider BMWs and Audis the gold standards of the sports compact segment.

Toyota seems realistic about the CT’s short-term prospects: it’s only forecasting 12,000 sales a year. So, especially if gas prices continue to dance ever closer to European levels, this car will stick around. But for God’s sakes! Lexus, give this thing some more wood!

Lexus provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.

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23 Comments on “Review: Lexus CT200h Take Two...”


  • avatar
    86er

    No trees were harmed in the making of this automobile.

  • avatar
    Wacko

    This has to beone of the ugliest cars I have ever seen.  The worst part is from the Side of the car, I looks like they took bits of other cars and just tried(not hard) to put them together.  I have no Idea what Toyota was thinking.  This car will get people laughing and pointing everytime one passes by. 

    but this does seem to follow toyota and Honda’s new trend, make the ugliest cars in the world and laugh that people are actuslly buying them. 

    I’m not sure I can look at it too long without vomiting, which oddly would make it look better.

    • 0 avatar
      Canuck129

      “This has to beone of the ugliest cars I have ever seen.”

      Really?  Is it really the ugliest?  It looks like most other hatchbacks I’ve ever seen.  It looks a bit European, and a bit practical, but the ugliest?  How can you tell the difference?  Very interesting comment.

    • 0 avatar
      Steve65

      “This has to beone of the ugliest cars I have ever seen.  The worst part is from the Side of the car, I looks like they took bits of other cars and just tried(not hard) to put them together.”
       
      I’m curious: did you actually read the review you’re ostensibly responding to?

    • 0 avatar
      Canuck129

      Really?  The UGLIEST??  EVER?? Isn’t that a bit extreme for a car that looks VERY similar to most or all other hatchbacks on the market around the world?  This is a pretty good interpretation of a sporty hatch IMO.  In fact this vehicle will fit my criteria and make it to my short list within the next year or two, even with the stiffer ride.

  • avatar
    Quentin

    As I’d previously written this car off, I’m intrigued to test drive it now.  Can a child seat fit in the back?  Would this make a decent MINI replacement for a young couple getting ready to have a child in the next few years? We have my 4Runner for really hauling a lot around, but this has piqued my interest, particularly if it is approximately the same interior size of the MKV GTI I just sold. 42mpg and nice handling sounds pretty good.

    • 0 avatar
      kog

      Yes a child seat can fit in the back with an adult in the front. I test drove this at the Venice ride and drive. My wife and I were going to take turns driving while the other watched the kid. I asked Lexus if I could throw in my baby seat and they said no problem. This car would work fine with two kids, unless you need to haul a lot around. I don’t know if the full on yuppie stroller would fit in the truck, yet I think Lexus is going for that market. Note: a fold up stroller would fit fine.
      I really enjoyed the car. I would get bummed out if I cared about sustained quick acceleration because it just isn’t there with this car. It was surprising how flat this car was in turns. I drive a fully optioned prius and was seriously considering getting this car.  It is sporty enough for me but unless the price is really competitive, I will probably get the Prius MPV next year.

    • 0 avatar
      Quentin

      kog – thanks!  I’ll have to give it a test drive in March.  Sounds like it would be a great car for my wife… if she would ever let her MINI go.

  • avatar
    BobJava

    This car might look great in person, as you say, but you’d have to notice it first.  This design is invisible at best.  And is there any four-door car made today that looks good in profile?  Not that most people can afford.

    I don’t understand why Lexus thinks a buyer would want a slow car with a harsh suspension. The trade-off is usually tough ride-for-go fast.  To some degree, I admire Lexus for going out on a limb here, but it sounds like a “good enough” effort (tm Old GM) rather than a great effort. They’ll probably sell in kind.

  • avatar
    Sam P

    Now if this car had the 3.5 liter V6 + hybrid powertrain (or even the  2.4 liter 4 from the Camry Hybrid + hybrid powertrain) it’d be worth a look. As it stands, the performance is very weak for the price. I’d buy a Camry Hybrid or Fusion Hybrid, save money, and enjoy superior performance and room.

  • avatar
    oboylepr

    This has to beone of the ugliest cars I have ever seen.  The worst part is from the Side of the car, I looks like they took bits of other cars and just tried(not hard) to put them together.  I have no Idea what Toyota was thinking.  This car will get people laughing and pointing everytime one passes by.
    but this does seem to follow toyota and Honda’s new trend, make the ugliest cars in the world and laugh that people are actuslly buying them.
    I’m not sure I can look at it too long without vomiting, which oddly would make it look better.
    So you don’t like it eh! Well it only goes to show you that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder.
    I love it, it is drop-dead gorgeous! Well it was before you threw up on it anyway ;-)
    I will take mine in Black please.

  • avatar
    Mike C.

    Sorry but I have yet to see an uglier mass produced vehicle than the original Aztec… This one isn’t even a distant 7th place.

  • avatar
    drifter

    5-year-old Camry to compete with the Audi A3 and BMW 1-Series?

    I see 10x as many 5-year-old Camrys as A3s and 1-er.
     
    Who exactly buy A3 anyway?

    • 0 avatar
      Quentin

      A3 buyers are those that are too afraid of being seen in a VW.  I shopped both of them prior to getting my MKV GTI and the only thing you could get w/ the A3 that the GTI didn’t do as well or better was an AWD and V6 option… but then you were stuck w/ an automatic (at the time; it may be different now).  I thought the GTI looked better, drove lighter, and the interior had far more character with the plaid seats versus the boring, drab A3 interior.

    • 0 avatar
      rpn453

      I see 10x as many 5-year-old Camrys as A3s and 1-er.
       
      You seem to have missed reading the first half of the sentence you responded to.

  • avatar
    FleetofWheel

    The look is more like a Lexus version of the Matrix than of a Scion.

  • avatar
    blowfish

    A Lexus without wood is like Dolly Parton without tits.

    i heard hers are all Silicone.

  • avatar
    dculberson

    A Lexus hatchback?  Screw the naysayers, sign me up.  Well, sign me up in 10 years when I can get it for $3500.
     
    Haters gonna hate, but any high trim level compact hatchback is a friend of mine, that’s for sure.

  • avatar

    The related Lexus HS also has a firmer suspension than the brand suggests it should, but it sounds like the CT is firmer still. I haven’t tried to drive the CT. Now I’m curious.

    Common problems with the HIDs notwithstanding, the Prius has been very reliable since at least the 2004 model year. We’ll provide reliability stats for the CT if and when enough owners get involved in the Car Reliability Survey:

    http://www.truedelta.com/reliability.php

  • avatar
    Brock_Landers

    There is very simple cure for the overly stiff ride – factory 16 inch wheels with 205/55 rubber. Takes all the harshness away. 

  • avatar
    Uncle Mellow

     
    “A Lexus without wood is like Dolly Parton without tits.”Quote
    You sure do know how to spoil someones’ evening.

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    Cadillac discovered that their buyers died, so they redesigned their cars with pretty good results.

    Lincoln is doing something similar.

    With this car, it appears that Lexus is also trying to find breathing buyers by courting the under 60 crowd with this design. Lexus began by apeing Mercedes, and now it seems they aren’t sure who to ape.

    Scion is Toyota’s recognition that they have become the Oldsmobile Cutlass for the Boomers.
    This car is their recognition that Lexus has become Packard. This design shows that they are trying too hard.

    I’m sure it is a great car, but like Kenny Rogers, (Dolly’s partner, btw), it looks like it has gone too far in liposuction, face lifts, boob jobs, and tummy tucks in order to appear young.

    Let me see one in white. You can’t hide goofy auto styling in white. Then I’ll let you know if it works styling-wise. A black car is like a veiled lady – it is hiding something…

  • avatar
    ml777

    I completely agree with FleetofWheel.

    What we have here is a Toyota Matrix (a Toyota Corolla Hatchback/wagon) fitted with the engine from the Prius, and given a Lexus Badge.

    As to ugliness…it could definitely be good to get a makeover, but it’s still not that ugly, at least compared to the Aztek


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