2012 Lexus CT 200h
Base price: $29,120 – $31,750
As tested: $35,819
MPG: 43 city/40 highway
- A Lexus for under $30,000
- A “move up” from Prius
- “Greenest” vehicle in its class
- Outclassed by competition
- Ride might be too firm for some
- Meager performance
By Jim Prueter
Last year Lexus introduced the CT 200h, its fifth hybrid vehicle and second hybrid-only model following the HS 250h sedan. Using a version of the same hybrid synergy drivetrain as the Toyota Prius, the CT 200h is the least expensive Lexus vehicle on the market with a starting price of $29,120 for the base model and an additional $2,630 for the Premium trim level, which adds a power moonroof and heated front seats.
“The CT’s role is to expand the Lexus hybrid lineup by looking for an entire new group of buyers,” says Charles Hubbard, the dealer educator for the brand. It’s also a seemingly natural “aspirational” vehicle for some Prius owners who want to maintain their green status yet stay in the Toyota family.
Chief competitors in this segment are Audi A3, Nissan Leaf, BMW 1 series, Honda CR-Z, and Volvo C30. Sales of those models have been less than exciting with a combined 13,332 units sold per month last year. By itself, Prius averages about that number of sales each month, but again, it can cost thousands less. Lexus’s goal is to sell about 1,000 per month in this relatively small market segment.
With the CT 200h, Lexus says its targeting mostly male buyers in there 30s and 40s. About 75 percent will come from outside the Lexus family upgrading from non-luxury brands. Lexus says these are shoppers who are looking for something youthful, sporty, and technologically advanced to match their lifestyles.
The CT 200h is based on the same platform that Lexus’s parent company Toyota uses for the Scion tC and Toyota Corolla. Also, the engine-transmission hardware is virtually the same as the Prius, with a 1.8-liter, 98-horsepower Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine teamed with the same 80-horsepower electric motor that combines for a total of 134 peak horsepower. As for fuel efficiency, the CT 200h gets 43 city/40 highway mpg for a combined average of 42 mpg.
A continuously variable automatic transmission is standard, and the CT 200h accelerates from 0-60 in about 10 seconds, which feels boringly slow, denying any traces of fun behind the wheel. While Hubbard goes to great lengths to emphasize the CT’s “sportiness,” we found little to that regard behind the wheel.
There are four available driving modes that can be selected on a rotary knob at the base of the center stack: Normal, Eco, Sport, and EV. In Sport mode, a tachometer appears in place of the hybrid recharge gauge display on the instrument cluster, indicating increased performance when the instrument panel lighting changes from blue to red. Sport mode releases the system’s full 650 volts, allowing the engine to rev higher by offering more dynamic software mapping for the throttle and electric power steering while reducing the abruptness of the stability and traction control electronics. That said, we didn’t notice anything we would categorize as “sporty” in that mode.
The Eco selection feels even slower and major controls torpid in response. The Normal mode improves the responsiveness, but still no need to brace for pinned-to-the-back-of-your-seat acceleration. Of course, the trade-off is improved mileage.
The electric-only EV mode is purely sleight of hand. In theory it is possible to drive up to one mile at speeds of 25 mph, but the tiniest amount of pressure to the throttle and the gasoline engine sputters alive and takes over.
We were, however, impressed with the vehicle’s handling prowess, with a suspension that feels super firm and quick to respond on twisty canyon roads. Though, it created a harsher ride on rough pavement.
As for the design, the CT 200h five-door hatchback reflects what appears to be some anxiety, as if Lexus still isn’t sure of itself with this product. The look is squat and wide with a low roof. The front end mirrors the Lexus IS, the truncated back end isn’t nearly as finished, and overall, it looks like an amalgamation of Subaru, Dodge Caliber, and a previous generation Chevy Malibu Maxx.
Inside, the cabin errs on the side of function versus luxury. Lexus dresses the interior up a bit with available aluminum, ash, or bamboo trim inserts, and the standard NuLuxe “vinyl” upholstery surprisingly feels nice to the touch. NuLuxe is offered in three colors: black, ecru, and camel, and the optional full-perforated leather seating is available only in black or water grey. Regardless of seating color, the dashboard is always black.
We found the front seats well bolstered, comfortable, and nicely supportive during our weeklong testing. Front seat room is generous, but the wider-than-normal center console limits side-to-side leg movement. Rear seat room is diminutive and best left for smaller occupants.
The CT 200h has considerable blind spots, with fat rear roof pillars and rearward side windows that eliminate over-the-shoulder glance-ability. A blind spot warning system embedded in both outside rearview mirrors would be a much-welcomed addition but is unavailable. Helping the problem, an optional rear backup camera displays on the rearview mirror or the navigation screen when the reverse gear is engaged.
For 2012, the CT 200h Premium is available with two new packages: the F-Sport and the F-Sport Special Edition. The F-Sport includes special suspension tuning, 17-inch wheels, a mesh grille, a larger rear spoiler, F-Sport badging, aluminum sport pedal trim, and a leather trimmed steering wheel and shift knob. The F-Sport Special Edition includes Ocean Blue NuLuxe upholstery, and a TUMI duffle bag and backpack with F-Sport logos in addition to the F-Sport equipment. Lexus says they will limit the Special Edition to just 900 cars.
The CT 200h comes standard with eight supplemental airbags — driver and front seat passenger, knee and side airbags, and side curtain airbags. It earned the highest possible “Good” rating and is a “2012 Top Pick” in crash test results from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Lexus is a premium luxury brand, but honestly the CT 200h felt more like a glorified Scion. Still, Toyota and Lexus denizens will no doubt give it irrationally high marks and thumbs up due to brand loyalty. And for that reason, it is considered a welcomed addition to the Lexus showroom.
In terms of sales, it isn’t intended to be a big seller nor a single solution for environmental challenges, but it does help Lexus expand their hybrid product offerings and pick off a few Prius owners.
While the CT 200h is a competent vehicle, we feel it’s outclassed by competition that looks and feels more luxurious, with improved performance, better handling, and with an overall sportier feel. Bottom line: it’s a hybrid.