Lexus sought to provide a top-notch, eco-friendly car without creating an absolutely bland driving experience when they released the Lexus CT 200h. The Lexus CT 200h is an alternative to the responsible but slightly boring Toyota Prius (Lexus is the luxury division of Toyota). Here's what we thought after a week-long test-drive.
It takes about five seconds in the driver's seat of the CT 200h to realize that this car is all Lexus, that is, luxurious and extremely tightly engineered. Each component in the cockpit is at hand exactly where and when you need it to be, without a great deal of casting about, and everything is clearly and intuitively labeled. The keyless starting system lends the car the expected poise, although the gravitas of starting the car is somewhat lacking as it turns on in electric only EV mode, in other words, silently.
Despite the lack of engine roar, it's clear that you're onto something in a car when the garage attendant returns it with the statement: man, I'm keeping that. I wish it was mine.
The Lexus CT 200h is powered by an 95-horsepower in-line four cylinder, internal combustion engine and an 80-horsepower electric drive motor that combines to produce 134 horsepower. However, the motors cannot reach their individual peak performance in tandem and the car has an electronically limited top speed of 113 mph.
While the Lexus CT 200h is not a sports car by any stretch of the imagination -- 113 mph is not blazing, and its zero to 60 time is a meandering 9.8 seconds, the overall driving experience can be engaging and at times exhilarating.
The four different driving modes create radically different driving experiences. The car's EV mode will allow all-electric driving for up to a mile, so long as the car is kept below 25 mph, a feature most useful in parking lots and stop-and-go traffic.
The CT 200h's Eco mode allows for the highest mpg, 43 city and 40 highway, although the literature says millage as high as 51 and 47 mpg is possible, and we achieved 41.3 mpg in Sport mode on the highway. In terms of gas millage, the car is fantastic regardless of the setting.
Eco mode is not fun to drive in, though. The only reason anyone would drive in it is if they were trying to maximize their gas-millage at the cost of every semblance of fun. In Eco mode, the CT 200h accelerated at a sluggish pace and often felt tepid and unresponsive even in the slowest traffic. Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge at rush hour in Eco mode is exciting ... but not a good kind of exciting.
Standard mode gives the CT 200h a boost above its lackluster Eco performance, and the driving experience is comparable to most quality hatchbacks, although the lush interior does make it more comfortable. Where the Lexus CT 200h really shines, though, is in Sport mode.
Sport mode is what gives the CT 200h its CT for Compact Tourer. Flip the car from Regular into Sport Mode, and the dashboard glows with a pervasive red light, and the car comes to life. In Sport mode, the throttle response gets turned up and battery voltage increases from 500 to 600 volts, which makes the car much, much more responsive, especially when combined with the hardened sport suspension. You may feel a few extra bumps in Sport mode, but they're worth it.
The Lexus CT 200h takes a corner. Handling of the sport hybrid improves dramatically in Sport mode.
While Sport mode doesn't magically turn the Lexus hybrid into a Bugatti Veyron, it does create a finely engineered, nimble machine for chewing up highway miles and overtaking competitors, er uh, other drivers, with ease while still getting good gas millage. The car's acceleration benefits from the additional torque generated by the electric drive, and the smooth transitions of the Continuously Variable Transmission mean that the car rarely feels like its struggling.
The CT 200h is quite forgiving and always feels sufficiently grippy and under control. This is great for a casual owner that wants to feel like a racecar driver on a Sunday afternoon, but there is a certain euphoria that the CT 200h misses out on by preventing hoonage of a high level. The car has the feeling of being engineered to back off just before the driving becomes irresponsible.
The interior and features of the Lexus CT 200h are the standard craftsmanship that one expects from a Lexus. Heated leather seats, a moon roof, Sirius XM radio, iPod integration and all the other standard Lexus doodads are great, with one exception.
The center console of the Lexus CT 200h. The car's satellite navigation, audio and climate are controlled from using the center joystick. The knob is the driving mode selector.
The satellite navigation is combined with audio, environmental control in the same console. For the most part it is intuitive and functional, but the primary function, navigation, is poorly executed. The unit failed multiple times to find locations, both using specific addresses and the Find Nearby function. It misidentified a Barnes & Noble as a parking garage, and was unable to find a numbered address on Park Avenue in Manhattan.
However, the car comes with a well-executed workaround to the unsatisfactorily built-in direction finder. The console can be used to call Lexus, and the operator can search for and download specific locations and addresses directly to your unit. The ability to call a live human being to get directions makes the automated address finder seem almost superfluous.
The only other problematic feature is the architecture of the rear window, which is very narrow and offers little visibility. When moving in drive, the mirrors provide sufficient visibility, but it pays to develop some additional awareness for the vehicle's awkward blind spots.
The Lexus CT 200h seen from behind. The rear window of the car is very narrow and blind spots can be a problem, but a rear-view camera solves the problem of reversing nicely.
In reverse it would be very difficult to navigate if Lexus had not included another elegant solution, called Lexux Enform. When the CT 200h is put into reverse, a rearview camera is activated, displaying the view behind the car. Using the video feed, it is possible to reverse to within mere fractions of an inch of an obstacle and still know exactly how much room you have.
The Lexus CT 200h is what it purports to be, a sporty hybrid that manages to get great gas millage without sacrificing drivability. The car starts at $29,120 MSRP with no extras. The Lexus Enform and integrated backup camera, while not essential, are highly desirable and to get both will run an additional $3,445. Although the gas millage is slightly lower than a Prius, and the cost is somewhat higher, if you can afford it and care about the quality of your drive, it is a nicer option. The overall quality of the engineering and the interior trim far outweigh the minor technical flaws, especially given Lexus' well executed solutions.