There is much about the Lexus CT200h that doesn't make immediate sense.
For example, why would Toyota choose to introduce this new car to the media in Paris, when the majority of its luxury brand's sales occur in the United States? And why would all of the CT's exterior dimensions measure within a cabernet franc grape of the Audi A3 -- a car that is, by conventional measures, a sales flop in big-car-obsessed America?
We Americans sometimes forget that the world doesn't revolve around our country -- and you can bet your freedom fries that the CT wasn't designed for the U.S. market. Some other clues to support this conclusion: an unapologetically wagonlike shape; a simple, driver-focused interior; a very stiff suspension; and stellar fuel economy. In fact, the CT's spec sheet is only a diesel engine and a clutch pedal short of passing for a European hatch.
In an automotive landscape often localized to American tastes (Bonjour, le nouveau Volkswagen Jetta), it's refreshing to be able to choose unabashedly European-focused cars on our home soil. Audi might not hawk as many A3s as it does A4s, but we would bet that their buyers -- who can happily squeeze their cars into teeny parking slots in Europeanesque American cities like San Francisco and Boston -- love them just as much.
So will this Euro-focused car work in America? Perhaps, but if you start to see ads touting the CT's sportiness, kindly turn your back in protest: this is no Volkswagen GTI. The CT uses the Prius's powertrain -- which means a low-revving, 1.8-liter Atkinson cycle four-cylinder mated to a couple of electric motor/generators and a planetary gearset. No paddle shifters are available, there's no way to turn off the electronic stability control, and with 134 total system horsepower, the 3130-pound CT200h rather impassionately drones its way to 60 mph in 9.8 seconds.
The corollary is pretty great fuel economy: Lexus expects that the CT will achieve 42 mpg on the combined EPA cycle, which is 24 percent better than the next-best fuel miser in the segment, the A3 TDI (not to mention 20 percent better than Lexus's other sub-
$40,000 hybrid, the HS250h sedan). Audi's diesel may not have much more horsepower (140), but it's almost a second quicker to 60 mph and has a paddleshifted six-speed dual-clutch automatic that eliminates the dreaded CVT-induced on-ramp moo.
On the other hand, Prius drivers might consider the CT200h a downgrade in both utility and economy. The Lexus is five inches
shorter in length than America's favorite left-lane plugger, and that translates to dramatically reduced rear-seat and trunk room.
And thanks to the CT's standard big-boy tires and wheels (215/45VR-17 instead of 195/65SR-15) and good looks (which increase
the coefficient of drag from 0.25 to 0.29), the Prius scores almost twenty percent better at the pump.
So, why would you ever choose the CT over a Prius?
For every other reason, starting with the way it drives. The CT200h's suspension is refreshingly firm, and from the highly supportive, aggressively bolstered driver's seat there's no perceptible body roll and not the slightest hint of wallow. Small bumps are felt but barely heard, and the CT refuses to lose its composure over the big ones or in the middle of corners. Although the CT occasionally hit its bump stops over exceptionally rough pavement, even the nastiest cobblestone road you can imagine couldn't coax a squeak or rattle out of the interior. The standard leather-wrapped steering wheel is thick and perfectly proportioned, and if you can put up with the bovine complaining from under the hood, you might even find that the cabin is quiet once you finally reach the CT's electronically limited 113-mph top speed.
A dial on the center console allows the driver to select among three drive modes: Normal (yawn), Eco (double yawn), and Sport (inappropriately named, but otherwise just right). In Sport, the current-flow indicator on the left side of the instrument cluster changes to a tachometer, the gauge illumination changes to red, the throttle is remapped for better response, and the quick, electric power steering is recalibrated for less assistance -- but, sadly, no extra feel.
The stability control is also remapped for less intrusion, but even in the so-called sport mode, it'll pull the plug at the slightest suggestion of indecent behavior. Too bad, since this version of Toyota's front-wheel-drive MC chassis (also seen in the HS250h and the Scion tC) might actually be Toyota's best -- if it were just allowed to play. Like in many hybrids, the brake pedal feels OK on soft applications, but its response to big pedal inputs is abruptly nonlinear.
The optional upgraded stereo sounds great, and XM satellite radio, a USB auxiliary input, and Bluetooth are standard. As a radio or CD player, the system is easy to use, but the small, green-backlit LCD display (the same one Toyota has been putting in cars for some twenty years now) isn't sufficient for iPod song-hunting. The optional navigation system takes care of the display problem but adds Lexus's polarizing, console-mounted joystick. Keyless start is standard, as is dual-zone automatic climate control.
Strangely, no HIDs are offered -- only standard halogens or optional all-LED headlamps, which are sure to be expensive. Happily, all CTs come with a horizontal row of bright LEDs for daytime running lights, clearly inspired by Audi.
The interior can be trimmed with either a new, polyurethane-based NuLuxe, which comes standard, or with optional leather. The former is a softer and, according to Lexus, greener alternative to vinyl, but we think other manufacturers' synthetic leather looks, feels, and breathes better. A backup camera is available with its display either in the rearview mirror (good) or in the navigation screen (great), and we'd recommend either one given the CT's small rear window and largish turning radius.
The nickel-metal-hydride battery pack is mounted high in the trunk, compromising storage space, but the rear seats fold easily (even with the front chairs pushed all the way back), making the best of the space available. And while we're on the subject of sliding seats, we should note that power controls aren't available for the front passenger seat.
No big deal, you say? Well, the car market is often price-driven, and for the CT's expected $31,500 base price, there are vehicles that can do better luxury-car imitations, with heated and cooled power seats, for example. We expect one car in particular, the forthcoming Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, to make huge strides toward CT-like fuel economy in a substantially larger package.
But remember, Lexus didn't design this car for cheapo Americans and their big, soft-car tastes. The European premium market is chock full of small cars for people with big wallets -- and the CT200h is the fi rst entry in this segment with the snoot factor of a hybrid label. And kudos to Toyota for not just slapping a Lexus badge on a Prius. Sure, a Prius with the Cadillac Cimarron treatment would have been an easier Lexus to make -- and might have even appealed to more people than this CT will. But at the end of the day, there's just no comparison between a pain au chocolat and a Hershey bar shoved between two pieces of Wonder Bread.
2011 LEXUS CT200h
BASE PRICE: $31,500 (est.)
ENGINE: 16-valve DOHC I-4
DISPLACEMENT: 1.8 liters (110 cu in)
HORSEPOWER: 98 hp @ 5200 rpm
TORQUE: 105 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
BATTERIES: Nickel-metal-hydride, 202 V
MOTOR: 80-hp AC
TOTAL HORSEPOWER: 134 hp
TRANSMISSION: Continuously variable
STEERING: Electrically assisted
SUSPENSION, FRONT: Strut-type, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR: Control arms, coil springs
BRAKES, F/R: Vented discs/discs, ABS
TIRES: Michelin Primacy MXM
TIRE SIZE: 215/45VR-17
L x W x H: 170.1 x 69.5 x 56.7 in
WHEELBASE: 102.4 in
TRACK F/R: 60.0/59.8 in
WEIGHT: 3130 lb
FUEL MILEAGE: 42/41 mpg (est.)