The 2011 CT 200h is completely different from any other Toyota or Lexus model. Indeed, it doesn't share a platform with any of them. It's a four-door/five-passenger hatchback, a highly practical style of vehicle that is popular in Europe but traditionally doesn't sell well in the U.S. With the price of regular gasoline now above $3, American tastes may start to change.
The new front-wheel-drive Lexus CT 200h, which is scheduled to hit dealer showrooms in late February, is a terrific upscale alternative to the Toyota (TM) Prius. This all-new model has two big selling points: A relatively low price—it's the least expensive model in Lexus' lineup, with a starting price of $29,995—and an average fuel economy rating of 42 miles per gallon.
It's no BMW (BMW:GR), but the CT 200h offers a nicer cabin and greater driving panache than high-mileage competitors such as the Prius and Honda (HMC) Insight. If your priority is the greatest possible fuel economy the Prius is still the best buy on the market, as far as I'm concerned. If you're willing to pay a bit more for nicer styling and better handling, the CT 200h is well worth a look.
A 1.8-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine and a pair of electric motors combine to give the Lexus CT 200h some 134 horsepower, while an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (CVT) works as ringleader. In Edmunds testing, the CT 200h jogs from a standstill to 60 mph in a torpid 10.4 seconds on the way to a pass through the quarter-mile in 17.6 seconds at 78.8 mph, but don't let this discourage you, since in real-world driving, the CT feels reasonably well-powered and responsive in most situations. It comes to a stop from 60 mph in 120 feet, a reasonable effort considering its less-than-sticky, low-rolling-resistance tires.
If the car feels lighter on its feet than any other Lexus, it's because it is. Lexus engineers kept its heft down to a modest 3,130 pounds, making it both the trimmest model in the automaker's fleet and the trimmest model in its segment.
We exploit the CT's playfulness by putting it in "Sport" mode and the drive mode knob indicates our choice by lighting up in bold crimson. Throttle response instantly becomes more aggressive and steering sharpens, since this mode modifies their settings for quicker response each time the driver taps the gas pedal or turns the wheel. Sport mode also dials back the car's stability and traction control systems, allowing us more direct control of the Lexus.
Although the CT 200h's suspension features the usual MacPherson struts in front and a fully independent, double-wishbone suspension in back, this is the first Lexus to offer a lateral performance damper system. It's a unique design meant to reduce body vibrations and promote a more comfortable ride, and this technology helps give the car a well-planted feeling that's more German than Japanese. Those expecting traditional luxury-car plushness might find ride quality somewhat firm, though, and things can get downright harsh and brittle in Sport mode.
We find the front seats comfortable and nicely padded, but some might find them a little low-slung. To give the car's cabin a sporty feel, Lexus designed the seats with a low hip point, which means that ingress and egress require a little more effort than you might expect from a vehicle that isn't a purpose-built performance car. Even the steering column is set at a low angle (21 degrees), though it can be customized via tilting and telescoping.
We like the placement of the CT 200h's shift lever, as it sits high on the graceful slope of the driver-angled center stack in a perch that allows us to manipulate it with minimum effort. There's not much room for in-cabin storage, though, since the glovebox, door bins and center bin are all too small to shoulder any meaningful burden.
The relatively straightforward navigation system is governed by Lexus' Remote Touch controller, which is essentially a mouse that sits on the driver side of the center console. Its placement is indicative of the thoughtful ergonomics found throughout the cabin; there's almost zero exertion required to grasp it, given that it rests mere millimeters away from where the driver's hand naturally falls on his thigh.
We're surprised to find that with the front seat adjusted for a driver roughly 6 feet tall, there's enough room in the cramped-looking rear seat for a passenger of similar height. The CT 200h is able to pull off this magic trick due to its cleverly constructed front seatbacks, which feature recessed hollows that eke out additional knee room for those seated in the second row.
Luggage capacity is 14.3 cubic feet, which is more than you'll find in the 1 Series but less than that of the A3 and C30. Rear visibility is passable but not great, given that the car's C-pillar is substantial and sizable rear-seat headrests obstruct the view.
The CT 200h's low stance and fastback silhouette give it an appealingly sporty look, but its sheet metal calls to mind more economical hatchbacks, which could be a turn-off for the most premium-minded buyers.
Within the cabin, soft-touch surfaces quilt the most heavily trafficked contact points. Leather upholstery is available but our test car is lined with a synthetic imitation that's 50 percent lighter and a perfectly acceptable substitute. The look of the cabin is modern and upscale, save for the radio's dated-looking panel layout and display screen.
The 2011 Lexus CT 200h is a good pick for shoppers who want Lexus prestige without sticker shock and steep fuel bills. It's also a solid bet for those in search of a less ubiquitous, more high-end alternative to the frugal Prius.