2011 Lexus CT200h

2011 Lexus CT200h 2011 Lexus CT200h
Short Take Road Test TESTED

In the past few years, there’s been a lot of talk that Lexus might become an exclusively hybrid brand. Whether or not that will actually come true, hybrids are certainly a tremendous part of the brand’s business and image. Lexus continues to crank out gas-electric versions of otherwise conventionally powered models, as well as hybrid-only models such as the HS250h and this CT200h.

The CT200h and the HS250h ride on Toyota’s MC platform, which also underpins the Toyota Corolla and the Scion tC. The HS hooks an electric motor to a 2.4-liter inline-four—total system output is 187 hp—but the supposedly sportier CT200h’s gas four displaces just 1.8 liters, and it and an electric motor combine to produce 134 hp, 13 fewer than the HS’s gas engine makes all by its lonesome. (The CT’s setup is basically the same as that found in the Prius.) And, of course, there is the small matter that the HS250h resembles a four-wheeled Teletubby. Viewed from certain angles, the CT200h’s slight forward rake lends it the look of a rear-drive Japanese VW GTI—in spite of the fact that it’s front-wheel drive.

The CT200h has a bit of the feel of a Japanese GTI as well. Grabbing the thick steering wheel conjures flashbacks of squealing tires and blurring scenery, and the first few cranks reveal a sporting heft. Lexus claims the CT utilizes a “bespoke suspension design,” bespoke apparently meaning “shared with the HS250h.” But whereas the chubby HS feels as soft as it looks, the different tuning of the CT’s setup endows the car with immediate, athletic responses and surprisingly level body control.

We’re Not Mad, Just Disappointed

All that promise goes right out the window as soon as you start pushing the CT, though. The steering is nicely weighted and very quick off-center, but it offers zilch in the way of feedback. The chassis, too, is a big pile of unrealized potential. It has a pleasant balance of ride and handling at lesser speeds, but it’s actually too flat in turns and isolates the driver completely from what’s happening at the limit. The driver feels the g-loads build but might as well be on a carnival ride for the amount of interaction he feels with the source of them. That’s particularly disappointing when you consider how playful this car could be. With a short, 102.4-inch wheelbase—2.3 shorter than that of a BMW 1-series—the CT would love to rotate, if only its intrusive stability-control system could be turned off. Not only is the stability control stubborn, but it also isn’t particularly quick to react, either. We found we were able to initiate and immediately catch slides before the system intervened. It would still cut power, however, at that point, only retarding forward progress instead of aiding stability.

And with merely 134 hp propelling a 3278-pound package, the CT’s forward progress is already sufficiently encumbered. We clocked a 0-to-60-mph time of 10.5 seconds and a 17.9-second quarter-mile at 78 mph—CVT mooing away all the while—2.1 and 1.4 seconds slower than its HS platformmate, and 0.5 and 0.3 slower than the slightly lighter Prius. CT200h drivers will want to keep an eye out for Smart Fortwos, as they represent a rare opportunity for a victory in the stoplight drags. Those for whom the “go” part of the stop-and-go commute reaches higher speeds will want to note that heat soak quickly afflicts the electronic components after repeated runs, slowing acceleration times further—so catch those Smarts early. As for the CT’s hybrid credentials, rarely did we motor without the gas engine aiding our propulsion. There is a button marked “EV mode,” but if pressing such a button at 26 mph activates a note in the display saying “EV mode unavailable excessive speed,” then you don’t have an EV mode. (In that same vein, Lexus, you haven’t built a sporty car if it has a CVT and doesn’t offer an option to manually lock in ratios, even fake ones.) Even with us abusing it to, you know, actually get places, the CT did return 33 mpg, so it has that going for it.

Light a Fire under Its Butt, but Not Literally

Slowness isn’t the only trait the CT200h shares with the HS250h. The HS’s interior suggests that perhaps somebody affixed the wrong badge at the factory and the car was intended to be just another Toyota all along. The CT200h gets a bit more brightwork and handsome contrast stitching but is still oddly low-rent for Lexus. We appreciate the shift lever that looks like a chrome version of the handle a Boeing 747 captain pulls to extinguish a fire in engine four, but bright spots like this largely serve to illuminate the shortcomings of the surfaces around them. The vast plains of black plastic feel cheap, and the button layout seems to have been the work of a sociopath or merely an afterthought.

For $29,995, the basic CT200h package has a load of equipment you’d expect of a Lexus: faux leather—“looks and feels like leather to driver and passengers but is manufactured with the environment in mind,” according to Lexus—satellite radio, a tilting-and-telescoping steering wheel with audio controls, and power windows and locks, among other gear. It does not, however, offer any options beyond interior and exterior colors. To unlock the rest of the options list, buyers must opt for the CT200h Premium, which adds a sunroof, heated seats, and $1780 to the bottom line. Once in the candy store, whoever spec’d our test car went for the nuclear belly bomb. Real leather seats—Damn the cows! Get me a double Whopper!—added $1330 to the sticker, and auto-leveling LED headlights with washers drained the bank by another $1215. The $1100 audio package is one of three different Premium Audio packages Lexus offers, depending on what other equipment is specified. This one is paired with the $2445 navigation system, which rewards the driver with Lexus’s horribly distracting mouse-nub infotainment controller. The driver navigates the system by moving a regular old computer cursor on the nav screen using a joystick located on the center console—at least until he smashes into the car ahead of him. (Better opt for the $1500 collision-warning system, which our test example did not have.) Toss in a cargo net for $75 and lighted door sills for $299, and you have a total of $38,239, or about $1000 more than the base price of the porridge-tastic HS250h.

With the CT200h and HS250h, Lexus has a situation similar to that of Jeep’s Patriot and Compass: one platform, two divergently styled vehicles. We don’t like either Jeep. Lexus’s recent update of the IS F completely transformed that car, correcting many wrongs and instilling a sense of soul. We hope the company can do the same for this, its second compact front-drive hybrid. As for its first one, we have a suggestion similar to the one we made when Jeep introduced the Compass and the Patriot: Do one thing, and do it well.