The Lexus CT 200h is a five-door hatchback powered by a hybrid gas-electric powertrain taken from the Toyota Prius. The CT 200h is 6 inches shorter than the Prius, or about the same overall length as the Audi A3 wagon. 2014 is the third year for the CT, now poised to claim a bigger presence, on its striking new face with the Lexus family spindle grille.
You do not plug this car in, you fill the tank with gas. It's propelled at times by both the electric motor and its four-cylinder engine, but at very low speeds it can run in electric-only mode for very short periods of time. The CT 200h achieves an EPA-estimated fuel economy rating of 43/40 mpg City/Highway.
The Lexus CT 200h F Sport has slightly firmer springs, but its sports appeal is mainly aesthetic: black leather, racy 17-inch alloy wheels, mesh grilles, big rear spoiler, aluminum pedals, perforated leather steering wheel, titanium-gray metal instrument panel trim, and F Sport badging.
Born of a hatchback, the CT 200h looks like no other Lexus, from the sides and rear. The shape of the CT 200h looks more European than Japanese, and its profile from all angles is very similar to that of the Audi A3. The design was determined largely by wind tunnel testing, and the coefficient of drag is a low 0.29 Cd. The Lexus CT makes boxy look stylish, with smooth and flowing lines, from the contours on the hood up to the long roofline and straight back to the spoiler with a little lip over the muscular liftgate. The details of the design, trim and wheels are flawless.
For 2014, the CT gets the Lexus spindle grille. Designers make this grille different with every car, and the CT version is fairly quiet compared to the visually loud Lexus GX 460 SUV. On the CT the striking spindle outline is chrome, but it's black mesh not chrome bars. LED daytime running lights are new for 2014. There's also a new rear bumper design with a larger rear spoiler, aero fins, and a shark-fin antenna. And every 2014 CT gets a scratch-resistant clearcoat on the sheetmetal.
Inside, the cabin is cozy with a comfortable driver's seat. Everything is easy to reach. Rear-seat legroom is tight. Cargo space is about the same as a compact sedan, smallish for a hatch. The view rearward is restricted, so we recommend the optional rearview camera that comes with the navigation system, that's now on a thinner screen with upgraded touch-interface. In the audio department, the speaker system is improved in both the 6-speaker base and 10-speaker premium systems. The next-gen multimedia system includes HD Radio and real-time traffic and weather.
More interior tweaks for 2014 include the flat-bottom steering wheel redesigned for better feel, a new leather shift knob and sliding sun visors , and metallic interior ornamentation, with more choices in color and trim.
With the Prius powertrain, the CT 200h makes 98 horsepower from the 1.8-liter Atkinson Cycle gas engine and 80 hp 60 (kW) from the motor/generator, for a total of 134 hp, not much. Its 0-60 mph acceleration time of 9.8 seconds is the same lethargic pace as that of the Prius. It corners so well that a driver might be lured into treating the car in a sporty manner, but the small engine and electronically controlled continuously variable transmission cannot respond to that urge. The CT has four driving modes: EV, Eco, Normal and Sport. Don't count on going anywhere in EV, the all-electric mode: We couldn't cross the street from the bank to the grocery store in EV mode. It's EPA-rated at 42 mpg Combined, and we got 38 mpg while not exactly striving to drive green.
We were surprised and delighted to discover the CT 200h handles so well, and the F Sport goes even better. In any CT 200h model, the cornering is spirited and secure. This Lexus has impressive balance, with a low center of gravity and centralized moment of inertia (the spin-out factor). The chassis offers high torsional rigidity, using a double-wishbone rear suspension, and sophisticated performance dampers.
Ride quality is very good. We drove hard over a section of road with a lot of lumpy tar patches, and our Lexus took them in stride. The CT 200h is very maneuverable, able to make a U-turn in just 34.2 feet. The brakes are firm, too. It's very quiet inside the cabin at freeway speeds.
Lexus CT's five-door design might be seen as a long hatchback or a small wagon. Its overall length is about the same as the Audi A3 wagon, and its profile is similar.
The new family nose for 2014 changes its image, moving it more upscale. The bottom corners of the spindle shape are wider than before, and the pinch point is lower, to add stance. The spindle grille works on the CT, especially on the F Sport model hiding the front bumper behind uninterrupted black mesh. A Lexus badge lives inside the dark grille that pushes forward to create a powerful, more three-dimensional form, according to Lexus. So you might say that the CT has a 3D face.
The CT's lines are both smooth and edgy, from the contours on the hood to the tidy shoulders, up to the long low roofline and straight back to a larger spoiler over the muscular liftgate. It extends from the top of the C-pillar, which matches the shape of the spindle grille, only it's vertical. A sharkfin antenna completes the stylish effect.
The coefficient of drag is a low 0.29, with much of the aero design decided by wind tunnel testing, a program called Computational Fluid Dynamics. More attention to detail: there are no less than nine tweaks under the car, to smooth the airflow.
Other excellent details include beautiful new 10-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels, sharp headlamps with single halogen or twin LED low beams, LED daytime running lights, aerodynamic sideview mirrors, tidy chrome outline around the windows, black B-pillar to blend with tinted glass, body-colored door handles, wide rear door openings, and LED taillights.
A new bumper design emphasizes the horizontal structure at the rear, with dark gray fascia shaped for stance, and trapezoidal red reflectors inlayed into the corners, for pizzazz.
The CT 200h comes in six colors including the new Redline. A black roof is available with any color. Each car gets a final spray over the paint, with a scratch-resistant, self-restoring top coat. We like the sound of that.
The F Sport has a way better looking spindle grille, all black mesh, a bigger and cooler rear spoiler, and hot 10-spoke wheels. White Nova is an exclusive color.
First time we got in the Lexus CT, we were greeted with a task that had nothing to do with getting where we were going. A message said: "You have a new Lexus Insider article," and there was a choice to make: "Read it now, remind me later." We looked for the option that said: I don't care, ever, just go away and stop asking me to do things before I even leave my driveway. But no such luck.
We wanted to shoot the dinging bell that told us we were in reverse, as if we were driving a forklift or UPS truck, although at least their beeps are for the safety of others, not to remind the driver he's going backwards as if he couldn't figure it out for himself. Those beeps are dangerous, because they're distracting, and sharp focus is needed while backing up.
We found the cockpit cozy and snug, which is the opposite of airy and spacious. The flat-bottomed steering wheel with controls is new in 2014, but a tall driver's knees will rub when climbing in and out, and his right knee is crowded against the center stack tunnel. The seat slides way back. There's only 32.8 inches of legroom in the rear, so be careful of your rear-seat passenger's toes when you slide the driver's seat back.
The batteries live behind the back seat and under the cargo compartment, and raise the floor just a bit. The cargo area is high and small, with only 26.2 inches from floor to roof. A horizontal double wishbone rear suspension increases the cargo volume to the sides a bit, in the absence of strut towers. There's 14.3 cubic feet of storage space behind the rear seat, about the size of the trunk in a compact sedan, but a lot less than the 19.5 cubic feet the Audi A3 manages to find. Lexus stats don't include how much space is gained when the rear seat is dropped flat.
Lexus says that more than 94 changes were made to the 2014 model, in order to reduce vibration and harshness, and to make the cabin super quiet, as opposed to just very quiet, which it already was at 75 mph with the hybrid powertrain. For example, a new inlet duct design for the engine is both more efficient and quieter.
The center stack angles downward from the dash to the console, to make the controls easier to reach, and we appreciate it. The switchgear has an improved metallic film finish. The forward ends of door pockets are slim, while the back part is shaped for a bottle. The doors have good armrests and grab handles. Visibility in the rearview mirror is pinched by the liftgate window, rear headrests, and wiper blade.
You can get real leather if you need it, in black, gray or the new perforated Flaxen, but we like the standard NuLuxe; nobody will notice it's not leather, not even you after a while, and it's less expensive while being friendlier to the environment. It comes in Black, Ecru (gray), Caramel, Flaxen and the new Parchment. Interior trim can be matte wood, silver metallic, bamboo, or the new Shimamoku, a gray striped wood. Much of the plastic on the CT 200h is vegetable based, keeps the car green.
The eco-driving information is simple, without any attempt to be cute or entertaining with leaves or other distractions. EV, Eco, Normal or Power mode are indicated; fuel mileage at three different starting times; and battery status, when it's charging and when it's drawing.
The Lexus Display Audio (LDA) and Electro Multi Vision/Navigation (EMV/N) multimedia system is made more user-friendly in the areas of hands-free, voice recognition, and console controller, the second generation Remote Touch Interface (RTI). The Optitron instrument panel is now available with a 4.2-inch TFT (Thin Film Transistor) screen which may be linked to the multimedia and navigation system and controlled at the steering wheel. This next generation multimedia system includes HD Radio, traffic and weather, Bluetooth 3.0 and two USB ports.
The sound quality of the Lexus audio systems, both standard six-speaker and premium 10-speaker, has been enhanced by the world's first bamboo loudspeaker technology. Bamboo fiber, plant opal and charcoal are combined in an injection molding process to create the industry's thinnest loudspeaker diagram.
The shift lever with a new leather wrap is located high, suggesting that shifting gears is not a high priority in this car. More on that later.
The F Sport interior is all its own, with upgraded upholstery including synthetic leather side bolsters and headrests, fabric center panels, enhanced stitching and a new Slate Grey color and Wedge Metal trim. Full leather is available in Black or Dark Rose.
The Lexus CT was introduced as a 2011 model with much fanfare about the rigidity of the chassis, but for 2014 it gets strengthened with more spot welds, making us wonder if they missed it the first time. Also, spring rates are changed, shock absorbers improved with a new valve, and the rear stabilizer bar optimized for ride, which is excellent. The CT takes lumpy patches in stride.
Cornering is terrific. The chassis engineer, Mr. Satakata, a racer himself, worked to make the CT 200h feel spirited and secure on twisty roads, and it does. There's a double-wishbone rear suspension, low center of gravity, centralized moment of inertia (like a horizontal center of gravity), and performance dampers (first seen on the Toyota Corolla GTS), which are horizontal bars with a gas shock absorbers mounted between the front strut towers and rear frame horns.
The turning circle is a tight 34.2 feet, making city driving a breeze.
The problem with the CT's terrific handling is that it makes the car feel like a missed opportunity. It could be a fantastic answer if it weren't for the Prius powertrain. If Lexus made a CT with the gasoline-burning IS 250 engine and 6-speed gearbox, it would be a star. They do make one of those for Japan but not for the U.S.
With 98 horsepower from the 1.8-liter Atkinson Cycle gas engine and 80 hp (60 kW) from the generator, the total of 134 horsepower isn't much. Full-throttle acceleration from 0 to 60 takes 9.8 seconds, same pokey pace as the Prius. Snail-like acceleration is no fun when you're trying to get on the freeway in front of a big speeding truck.
Especially from the point of view of the chassis, the CVT, or Continuously Variable Transmission, is a letdown. It doesn't have gears like a normal automatic or manual, or even steps and paddles to shift sequentially, like some non-hybrid cars with CVTs. When you push the CT200h on twisty roads in order to enjoy the handling, the engine rpm's keep surging for the CVT to work, ruining the fun. The surge is all aural, as there is no actual surge felt in the car, but it's still annoying.
We performed a test, to answer our own questions about this alleged CVT surge. We switched on the 10-speaker premium sound system, turned the volume way up with hard rock, and floored the accelerator at 60 mph. Like magic, the perceived surging stopped, because we couldn't hear it. We watched the tach, and it kept radically jumping up and down. The car was totally smooth. This weirdness is why people have a hard time with CVTs. The CVT relationship isn't between speed and rpm, like we're used to, it's between acceleration and rpm.
We extended our test of this aspect of the CVT. Out on the open freeway, in Sport mode, the tach needle was barely 2000 rpm at 77 mph, and when we accelerated just a bit to 80 mph it leaped to 5000 rpm, with redline at 5500. We got to 82 mph and it maintained that speed at 3500 rpm.
The Lexus CT cannot compete in the fun-to-drive department with the front-wheel-drive Audi A3 turbodiesel with direct injection, which makes 140 horsepower and is rated at 30/42 mpg City/Highway. The Audi has the brilliant DSG transmission, and still costs less than the Lexus. And it too has low emissions, a past winner of Green Car of the Year, from Green Car Journal. (There's an A3 with a 1.6-liter TDI in Germany that gets more than 60 mpg.)
The CT has four driving modes: EV, Eco, Normal and Sport. Don't count on going anywhere in EV; our CT wouldn't even run the fan in the driveway in EV-only mode, let alone take us across the street from the bank to the grocery store. Lexus says the CT 200h can go for one mile at 28 mph in EV mode on a full battery charge, and we're not saying it can't; we're just saying we can't. In EV mode, battery power goes away fast.
Around town, below 25 mph, Eco mode is fine. But if you're accelerating past that, especially up a hill, the CT will shift itself into power (Sport) mode. The differences between Eco, Normal and Sport modes are not in their limit to power, but in how fast it will accelerate to that limit.
Fuel economy for the CT 200h is an EPA-estimated 43/40 mpg City/Highway or 42 mpg Combined, on Regular 87-octane gasoline. Out on the freeway at a steady 68 mph, we got 37.7 mpg; around town, driving like a little old lady, we saw 20.6 mpg. Granted, there were a lot of hills and it was cold so the heater was running.
The brakes are nice and firm on their own. There's also a Braking mode, which gets the most out of regenerative brake energy to build up the battery charge. You can feel it slow down the car when you back off, sometimes too much. In the city you can't smoothly glide up to a redlight and let your speed drop naturally. But it's great when you're driving down a curvy mountain or on a busy freeway. When you get there you'll have a full tank of battery juice.
The F Sport package isn't expensive, and it's worth it for the better looks alone. Performance-wise, it benefits from sport-tuned coil spring settings and optimized front/rear roll rigidity distribution. But the plain CT corners and rides well enough.
The Lexus CT 200h is a perfect idea: a Prius with the luxury and status of a Lexus, plus better looks. The CT 200h has a quiet cabin, a good ride and excellent cornering. Its drawbacks are wimpy acceleration and its CVT.
Sam Moses filed this report after his test drive of the CT 200h in Southern California, followed by one week in the Pacific Northwest.