The $37,995 Lexus "CTFSSE" Raises The Question: What's The Top Hybrid Brand?

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

Demographics, marketing, and public perception don’t play nicely together very often. Consider, if you will, the oft-repeated factoid that the GMC Yukon Denali customer base is better-educated and earns more income, on the average, that the equivalent Cadillac Escalade customer. The same was reportedly true for the previous generations of the Toyota Land Cruiser and Lexus LS400, respectively. People who are habituated to weath and success tend to be remarkably resistant to lifestyle marketing, celebrity tie-ins, and marble tiles on showroom floors.

The rather handsome little five-door you see above is, of course, a Lexus CT200h, which is more or less a Lexus Prius. There is a sported-up version of the CT200h, called the “CT200h F Sport”, and there is a sported-up version of that, yclept “CT200h F Sport Special Edition”, or “CTFSSE” for short. It rings the cash register for $37,995, and represents the very apex of Lexus compact hybrid ownership. It’s also $1,530 cheaper than the apex of Toyota compact hybrid ownership, the Prius Plug-In Advanced, which costs $39,525.

Which brand — Toyota, Lexus, or Prius — is the real premier entry into this market?

Yes, Virginia, there is a Lexus enthusiasts’ club, and they have a website. This is the kind of thing that makes me laugh long and hard at the ridiculousness of having a “lifestyle” built around owning rank imitations of other people’s designs, right up to the point that I remember that I am part of a owners’ club for Matsumoku Japanese guitars from the Seventies and Eighties. Oops. I suppose I should let someone else carry the water for that particular disdainful opinion.

When Lexus sent me an e-mail “blast” about there being CTFSes and CTFSSEs available at my local dealer for purchase, I decided to see if anybody had reviewed said CTFSSE yet, and I found this very interesting report from an early adopter. This fellow is a Lexus enthusiast. Seriously. I mean, he’s totally invested in the brand. He knew that the CTFSSE was coming. He made sure he got the first one off the truck. For the benefit of his forum friends, he details everything from the way the wheels look (awesome!) to whether or not a full-sized iPad works with the entertainment interface (kinda!). He photographs the CTFSSE with another icon of Lexus enthusiasm, the IS-F. He photographs the car with an IS F-Sport as well. We’ll refer to the IS F Sport here as the ISFS. The IS is very important to Lexus enthusiasts, primarily because it’s the only Lexus which has ever pretended to offer anything like an involving operation experience.

As I read the four pages of enthusiastic, informed, interaction between this buyer and his online friends, I realized that they were completely failing to discuss one aspect of the CTFSSE. Any guesses as to what that was?

You got it. Economy. Fuel economy didn’t get a look in. I didn’t get the impression that anybody really cared about it. Compare that to the discussions at PriusChat:

  • My hypermiling experiences during a recent “track day”, observations regarding cost of rear bumper repair, replacement of front teeth in this fascist capitalist economy
  • Drafting trucks — is six inches too close, or should I go to four in order to save the planet?
  • Has anybody here ever purchased so-called “fast food”? What about non-sustainable condoms?

You get the idea. As far as I can tell, while Prius enthusiasm is mostly driven by the social aspects of owning a vehicle known for fuel efficiency, CT, CTFS, and CTFSSE enthusiasm is all based around the idea that this is pretty much the cheapest Lexus. If the CTFSSSE had the IS350’s V-6 and got fourteen miles per gallon in the city, I suspect a lot of these people would be quite positive about that change.

The CTFSSE represents an eight-grand upcharge over the CT, and a six-grand upcharge over the CTFS, pictured below:

For that reason, they are likely to be a tough sell to all but the most committed of ClubLexus types. I thought the CTFSSE might be a good car for my thoroughly evil life partner, Vodka McBigbra, so I showed her a picture of one.

“That’s nice,” she said. “I could drive that if it had a trunky thing at the end.” On a hunch/suspicion/whim, I then showed her a picture of a Kia Rio.

“What do you think of this?” I inquired, quite innocently.

“It looks better in that color,” she replied. I haven’t saved twenty-four grand that easily since I declined to check the “W12” box on my first Phaeton. Back to the CTFSSE. It’s gonna be a tough sell.

You know what won’t be a tough sell? The nearly $40K Prius Plug-in Advanced. I confidently predict they will be sold out at Toyota dealerships for years. While the average CT owner probably doesn’t stay up late at night dreaming of a CTFSSE, the average ’07 Prius owner would murder to have a Plug-In, and many of them can easily afford it. Look for the Plug-In Advanced to have a cash-to-finance-purchase ratio that would shame Rolls-Royce. The demographics for this will shame those of the CT, the CTFS, the CTFSSE, the ISFS, the IS-F, the LS460, or, whisper it…

…the LS600hl. And the education/class aspects of it? Here’s a hint: if you have just one rock available to you and you want to make sure it strikes a published author, wait for the day the Plug-Ins arrive at a New York-area Toyota dealer and just chuck it into the crowd. The beautiful people on both costs will flock to this thing in exactly the manner in which they’ve studiously avoided the Volt.

This is all good news for Toyota, and if they weren’t aware of the phenomenon they wouldn’t be working so hard to make “Prius” a plural noun and expand the brand, but what else could they, or anyone else, learn from this? Here are a few things that come to my mind:

  • It’s important to be first. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the Volt and/or Leaf derided as “Prius knock-offs”, both from people who have no reason to know better and people who do. Get the product out there, get it out first, and make sure it’s right. Repeated decisions to ignore this principle are probably responsible for at least half of GM’s market-share losses in the past forty years.
  • Prestige marketing is changing. No, wait. It’s committing suicide. Fifty years ago, the brushed-nickel opulence of a Cadillac suited the upper-middle class as nicely as a set of cordovan Alden closed-lace shoes, but those days are over. Today’s fiscally-mobile class announces itself not with the dulcet tones of a Social Register listing but the aggressive, in-your-face, look-at-us-being-happy crassness of a “Life Is Good” shirt. The Prius Plug-In sends the same message as that Life Is Good crap: I’m successful, and I’m so down to earth and happy about the whole thing. Neal Stephenson had it right. In this country, in this century, the poor and powerless look angry and tough while the wealthy and manipulative cultviate the studied gormlessness of a Hello Kitty poster. Cadillac, Lincoln, and Lexus will fail to understand that at their peril.
  • You’d better understand why people are really buying your product and make sound decisions. The CT200h would be much better off as a CT250 V-6. Nobody cares about the fact that the littlest Lexus is a hybrid. They just want a cheap Lexus, preferably a Euro hatchy thing so they can keep pace with their Audi A3-owning friends. By contrast, Toyota doesn’t do enough to differentiate the Camry and Highlander Hybrids. If they made it more plain that those products were hybrids — and not in the dumb-assed Escalade Hybrid doorsill sticker way, but a sharp, snazzy, Sonata Hybrid way — they’d sell better and for more money.

Consumption is changing. I repeat. Consumption is changing. Here’s a question for you. Why is everybody a “foodie” all of a sudden? Got any ideas? I will tell you why: it’s because the only God-dammed thing that you can legitimately brag about in any upscale party nowadays is how much you’re spending on food. If you’re trying to impress a woman in Manhattan or Newport Beach, don’t talk about your $295,000 Ferrari F430. She’ll think you’re a douchebag, a braggart, and a solid candidate for surgical penis augmentation. If, on the other hand, you talk about how you’re spending $500 a week on food, she will get the message — you’re stacking bank — and approve on multiple fronts. It’s conspicuous consumption, redefined.

The CTFSSE might raise eyebrows among secretaries and dental hygenists everywhere, but if you’re interesting in dropping the fair-traded panties of your Smith-educated local localvores, the Plug-In Advanced is simply unbeatable. That’s why it will sell in numbers that eclipse the littlest Lexus, and that’s why it, not the CTFFSE, is the real upscale hybrid choice.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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3 of 53 comments
  • Canuck129 Canuck129 on Oct 21, 2011

    "...but a sharp, snazzy, Sonata Hybrid way — they’d sell better and for more money." A few things wrong with that statement....

  • AKADriver AKADriver on Oct 21, 2011

    IS-F the only involving Lexus? I'd almost put it second to the original IS300. That car was Lexus' Integra moment... a half-decent compact sport sedan utterly misplaced with an upscale badge.

  • NotMyCircusNotMyMonkeys i was only here for torchinsky
  • Tane94 Workhorse probably will be added to the heap of failed EV companies.
  • Freddie Instead of taking the day off, how about an article on the connection between Black Americans and the auto industry and car culture? Having done zero research, two topics pop into my head: Chrysler designer/executive Ralph Gilles, and the famous (infamous?) "Green Book".
  • Tane94 Either Elio Motors or Aptera Motors.
  • Billccm I think we will see history repeat itself. The French acquired AMC in the 1980s, discovered they couldn't make easy money, sold AMC off to Chrysler. Jeep is all that remained. This time the French acquired FCA, and they are discovering no easy profits. Assume an Asian manufacturer will acquire what remains of Chrysler, but this time Jeep and RAM are the only survivors.