A lot of people agree the Lexus CT 200h is a sporty looking car. It’s won a number of honors and awards since its 2011 launch, ranks among best sellers in the entry luxury segment, but as is true of any vehicle, it can’t be everything to everyone.
Refreshed for 2014, carried forth for 2015, the compact luxury vehicle poses as a hot(ish) hatch, has genuine Lexus luxury and reliability baked in, and gets fuel mileage in the 40s. What’s not to like right?
Right. But some performance buffs have sniffed at its Prius hybrid powertrain with CVT transmission. It generates a 0-60 time 1-second slower than a Honda Fit, but even the jaded concede the CT with four-wheel-independent suspension is pretty sharp on the backroads.
Nor can you have it all, can you? Isn’t every vehicle a set of compromises? And who can otherwise begrudge the efficiency of the proven Prius powertrain, the sleek roofline, angles and design merged with practicality of a hatch – that’s the closest thing we Yanks get to another sporty take on the Prius sold only overseas.
Last year Toyota collected all its global Lexus and Toyota hybrids in one place and invited journalists to cross-compare. It was there in Ypsilanti, Michigan we were tipped by a Toyota of Europe product communications manager to note similarities between the Euro-market Auris Hybrid and the U.S. CT 200h.
The Auris is sportier than the Prius, and if fun is on your buyer’s check list, the case could be made for it over the Prius, said our European contact who showed himself to be candid and plausible, willing also to point out flaws in other Toyota products.
But alas, the Auris is not sold here. The next-best – or possibly better – alternative however is the CT 200h. And it’s upgraded over what the Auris is. True it’s priced higher, but it’s the least-expensive, and most fuel efficient of Toyota’s upscale brand and actually pretty unique.
Shared by the CT 200h and the Euro-spec Auris Hybrid is the tried-and-true third-generation Prius’ full hybrid system.
The hybrid combines a 1.8-liter Atkinson cycle engine – more efficient but less torquey than a conventional Otto cycle and ideal for pairing with an electric motor to round out low-rpm power.
Actually two motor generators are employed and in all, there may be just-enough torque for the system that does enable low-speed all-electric drive for up to a mile or so.
The front-wheel driver works through that CVT (continuously Variable Transmission) and churns 134 total horsepower. The driver can switch between several drive modes – EV, Eco, Normal and Sport – and typical driving means the hybrid system’s brain is deciding where to draw power from – motor, engine, or both.
Differences Between CT 200h, Auris, and Prius
While combining elements of Prius and Auris, the CT 200h is actually unique with all its own sheet metal, interior design, and suspension tuning.
Where the Auris trumps its two siblings appears to be efficiency. In markets where it’s sold side by side with the Prius, it beats its mpg and CO2 scores. It also has a four-wheel independent suspension and tauter handling, but then, so does the CT.
Since launch the CT has used the MC platform and elements of it are shared by the Prius, Corolla, Matrix, Scion xB and former Lexus HS 250h. The platform is highly modified in various areas however, and the CT is positioned as a luxury sports hatch – even if it lacks a firebreathing engine to complete the look.
The CT’s suspension includes a double-wishbone design in the rear, and adds Performance Rods from Yamaha. These lateral braces in front and back include a strut, thus increasing rigidity, but also add the ability to absorb vibrations. As a result, CT’s suspension tuning is sportier than the former HS, and far sportier than Prius, but not at the risk of ride quality.
Driving position for the CT is lower as is center of gravity. Extensive use of high tensile strength sheet steel and aluminum with varied stiffnesses and strength of metallurgy also play into making the CT a Lexus-grade Toyota.
The 2014 facelift gave the CT LED headlights, and what Lexus calls “the brand’s dramatic signature spindle grille.” And it is dramatic, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so if you agree or disagree, that’s your choice.
Exterior design has been seen as provocative, and is enough to have made at least one prominent UK car magazine writer whine in print that it does not come with a more-powerful turbo-diesel befitting all the pretensions for style and speed.
Other changes included more spot welds to stiffen the chassis and allow revision to the suspension tuning to further smooth the ride befitting of a revised Prius/Auris badged as a Lexus.
Alloy wheels in 16 and 17-inch fitments are offered, and there’s a $1,200 F-Sport option that makes it even sportier with black roof, unique wheels, steering wheel and badging – but no more power. The F Sport also gets a functional roof spoiler, unique 17-inch wheels, sporty interior treatment, and unique colors, sport-tuned coil spring settings and optimized front/rear roll rigidity distribution.
The interior of the standard CT 200h is also luxurious, with supportive seats of either a high-quality imitation leather, or optional real leather. It’s all well thought out, instruments are clean and functional, and requisite redundant controls come on a nicely updated steering wheel.
Occupant space is decent, but being five inches shorter than a Prius LIftback, and shorter, you give up some utility, but not too much. A hatchback still makes better use of space than a comparably sized sedan.
In all, the CT tries to hide that it’s eco geek, and instead preens as eco chic. We think it succeeds here in spades.
Like the Prius, default start-up for the CT 200h is in EV mode where the car will make use of energy stored in its battery under the cargo area and attempt to emulate a Tesla or even Chevy Volt at low speeds.
Press the accelerator and the engine will kick on merging gas power with electric, seamlessly balancing between the two power sources for efficiency in any sort of cruising situation around town or at highway speeds.
Pushing the accelerator to the floor does see the CVT default to the highest engine power. Torque may be around 105 pounds-feet though Lexus does not state it, and to get moving at maximum haste, maximum revs are needed.
Power is not tortoise slow with a 0-60 time around 9.5-10.0 seconds, and noise levels are normally low. Lexus said it worked to improve its NVF (noise, vibration and harshness) and for any ordinary driving it’s true.
Unlike an upscale “performance hybrid” GS 450h, the CT 200h has no paddle shifters to make its transmission mimic a stepped transmission, or hold a gear. Compared to the 200-horsepower ES 300h hybrid sedan which shares the Camry Hybrid’s pwertrain, sells relatively close volumes to the CT, the CT 200h is 2-2.5 seconds slower to 60 mph.
Like the GS performance sedan, the CT’s hybrid eco power meter in sport mode instantly transforms to a tachometer with a blue glow replaced by red strongly hinting the car now means business. This is mainly for show, but does let you see what the engine is doing – something Prius drivers remain blissfully unaware of.
While posing as a performance machine yet failing to deliver implied speed, it does back up the image when you head to a curvy road. It’s here the car’s poise and handling dynamics show what you are getting over a Prius for an extra $8,000 – though we’re not so sure about that also-sporty European-market Auris.
The CT travels on low rolling resistance tires, but they afford a fair modicum of grip for brisk driving, and steering and handling response is fairly satisfying.
Braking too is sufficiently controlled, even with smallish discs. The pedal feel does not remind you regenerative braking is at play and has no rubbery or vague feedback to really speak of.
Another stellar aspect is of course the fuel economy. We were able to about match EPA numbers without babying it, a characteristic for whch the Prius powertrain is known.
Rated fuel economy of 43 mpg city, 40 highway, 42 combined is however around 15-percent below the Prius Liftback which comes in at 51 city, 48 highway, 50 combined.
Why the difference? The CT’s body profile flows through the air with a bit more wind drag, its sportier tires add more friction as well, and it weighs around a couple hundred pounds more.
If you wish to go beyond EPA numbers with more careful driving, it ought to be possible for capable drivers however.
The Lexus CT 200h is a pretty design exercise and something of a niche vehicle.
It competes in looks and style with entry level compact luxury cars while beating their fuel economy, and it is sportier than the Prius while delivering much of what’s made it the world’s top-selling hybrid.
But in making the Prius-powered CT sporty, Lexus gave it fuel economy about equal to the big Prius v wagon while making it no more powerful than either Prius.
It’s an otherwise enjoyable car, and as long as you never want to giddy up and go, it will be a great choice for those wanting luxury and style. But it does seem a bit incongruous that it makes a nearly-as efficient, much quicker 7.5-second 0-60 Camry Hybrid look fast despite being positioned as the performance-oriented car.
The Prius which can be spec’d into the 30s itself outsells it seven-to-one, but we don’t know how well the top-spec’d Prius sells next to the CT 200h. Perhaps a Prius just a few thousand less than the Lexus makes it easier to justify going one step further to the CT which in its sub-category is a best seller.
Other premium hybrids worth looking at would include the Lexus ES 300h sedan, and Honda Accord Hybrid, among vehicles we regularly report on.
Other non-hybrids would include your choice of entry luxury cars by Audi or BMW or Mercedes.
Certainly there are more-focused alternatives, and more fuel-efficient alternatives as well. But the unique blend of the CT 200h has no apple-to-apple competitor, so while some will pass on it, the car resonates relatively well in the marketplace, and we can see why.