As a young auto enthusiast hungry to read any written word about cars, I recall all too often coming across an unusual car that was not for sale in the US. The reason why was always the same: “Oh, we didn’t design that car with the North American buyer in mind” or “We just don’t feel there would be enough interest to sell that car here.” Strangely enough, the brand new Lexus CT200h IS one of those cars, but is sold here anyway. The CT is aimed squarely at the European premium sport compact car buyer, which has a buyer base here in North America, albeit a small one. It should come as no shock then that Lexus made the global debut of the car at the Geneva Auto Show. The CT200h was first seen here in North America at the 2010 New York Auto Show, and having been present, Lexus was pretty low key about their newest car.
So, the question is, what is the CT200h about? How does it fit in with the rest of the Lexus line? Who is this car meant to appeal to? When the CT hit the showroom floor, the ad campaign touted that the little Lexus hybrid was “the darker side of green.” Commercials showed the CT zig-zagging through urban traffic-the idea was to offer a hybrid car that actually had sportiness. Did Lexus succeed in combining the two? Read on….
As Euro-focused the CT may be, at first sight I instantly saw the car as similar to a Mazdaspeed3 that had graduated from finishing school. The Lexus has athletic styling, tidy proportions, and-is a hatchback. In other words, key ingredients on what the typical European buyer wants in this sort of car. But this isn’t Europe. With that in mind, for the North American buyer, I see the CT as a smart, sporty looking car that offers great fuel economy close to that of a Prius or Insight without the penalty of looking slightly dorky.
Lexus has a sterling reputation for near flawless interior execution. But as the smallest, and least expensive car Lexus has ever sold here, what do we get? The good news is you get the outstanding build quality buyers have come to expect from Lexus. Also, everything you touch has a solid, quality feel to it. The seats are comfortable, and the feel of the leather is butter-smooth. The thickness of the steering wheel hints at the car’s sporty pretensions. The pop-up navigation screen, which also holds several other of the car’s functions, seems a bit dated in what is a completely brand new car. The CT also employs a mouse-like controller to control navigation, audio, and other functions. Once you are used to it, it’s not a problem, but it seemed tedious that I had to summon it just to select a radio station preset.
Remember my reference to the Mazdaspeed3? The commercials? The CT200h looks ready to take on VW GTI’s, But the truth is, the CT is powered by the same drivetrain as the pedestrian Prius. Which is, a 1.8L Atkinson-cycle four cylinder offering 134hp. Lexus claims a leisurely 0-60mph run of 9.8 seconds, with a top speed of 113mph. The Lexus felt peppy enough getting through town and in the ‘burbs. The key is a selector on the dash where you select how you want the CT to drive-Normal, Eco, or Sport. In anything other than Sport mode, which sharpens throttle and steering, the CT feels a little numb. And you need to set the car to Sport every time you start the car. Even so, Sport mode offers no extra power. On highway trips, the CT labored in passing, and the CVT tranny giving the typical motorboat effect hardly made for an exciting drive.
To be sure, handling is more than competent, and the ride quality is pretty firm for a Lexus. Yet even in Sport mode, I just never felt I was riding the ‘darker side of green’ or even having a lot of fun. Again, this is the disparity between North American and European car drivers. Here, we drive greater and longer distances. In Europe, not so much. What is a liability of the car here, is not so much so in a different car culture. In any case, it’s tough to argue against the gas mileage: 43/40MPG city/highway, according to the EPA.
The CT200h is offered in base and Premium trim. Our Premium model started with a base MSRP of $30,900USD. Options included the Premium Audio Package, which added a 10-speaker stereo, 6 disc CD changer, auto dimming mirror, and Homelink. The Leather package added, as you guessed, leather seats, driver seat memory and rain sensing wipers. The Nav package added (yes!) navigation, backup monitor, Lexus Enform with XM Traffic, Sports, Stock and Weather. Grand total, as delivered, our tester came to $36,725.
So back to our questions. How does the CT fit into the Lexus line? It’s a bit of an oddity. Lexus’ other dedicated hybrid, the HS250 seems to fit better into what North Americans expect from a Lexus, but the HS is their slowest-selling car. And who is this car meant to appeal to? I see it as the guy living in New York, Boston, or San Francisco who is willing to stand in line overnight for an iPad, who likes hybrid tech but is turned off by the lack of sportiness, in bothÃ‚Â styling and handling that the Prius lacks. The battery pack eats up luggage space, so the CT would be a challenge for my family of three on a weekend trip, and the rear seat is a bit tight, so the CT doesn’t make much of a case as a family car.
According to our friends at Autoblog, Lexus hoped to sell 1,000 CT200h’s a month. At the end of May, they have sold 3,500, so even their conservative expectations have not been met. For a car aimed at the enthusiast who wants a mileage champ to boot, I feel the Audi A3 2.0TDI, with its DSG 6-speed tranny, gobs of torque and proven German roots makes a more compelling case, and said car, equipped the same as our CT, costs about the same. I applaud Lexus for reaching into new markets, and having the guts to sell a car aimed at a different market here, but the CT200h falls a bit short.