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.