The official launch of the CT200h last year at the Paris Auto Show gave numerous clues as to what Lexus had in mind for the car.
|1. Using the 134-hp hybrid drivetrain borrowed from the Prius, the CT200h gets 40/43-mpg (city/hwy) for a 42-mpg average.
2. Using the 134-hp hybrid drivetrain borrowed from the Prius, the CT200h gets 40/43-mpg (city/hwy) for a 42-mpg average.
3. The least expensive model in the Lexus lineup, the CT starts at just $29,120.
4. For 2012 Lexus will offer a CT200h F Sport Special Edition for $37,995 with 17-inch rims, an F Sport Suspension with firmer springs and sway bars and an appearance package with a mesh grill, larger rear spoiler, aluminum pedals and a perforated leather steering wheel.
First, the launch was in Europe, signifying that this really is a made-for-Europe model, designed to compete against the Audi A3, Mercedes B-Class and BMW 1 Series. No, not our 300-hp coupe, but the little diesel-powered hatchbacks they sell overseas.
Second, the invite list wasn’t the usual group. Sure all the big outlets were there, but as for the rest it was as though Lexus swapped lists with Scion, giving a rare overseas adventure to smaller enthusiast blogs and tuner magazines.
Surprisingly, even the big buff books seemed to all send junior staffers… although that’s perhaps because big editors were too busy driving Porsches on the autobahn to waste time with a rebaged Prius intended for a niche-market.
And yet that’s just the myth Lexus intended to eradicate, billing the bargain-priced CT as not only a true premium car, but a sporty hybrid; a tough sell indeed as neither the word “hybrid”, nor the word “Lexus”, bring to mind much in the way of driving enjoyment.
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POSITIVE FIRST IMPRESSIONS
As skeptical as the rest, we emerged from our test impressed. The CT was definitely a premium model and with that Sport mode switched on via a dial on the dash (firming up the steering and throttle response), it made for an engaging ride. The Sport mode also activates an “overboost” function for the electric motor, delivering about three times the regular jolt to give the car a high-torque feel much akin to a diesel – something the European drivers would certainly appreciate.
Plus, Lexus eagerly pointed out the thick rimmed steering wheel and more engaging driving position, both of which we found helped considerably in shaping our generally positive driving experience of a car that in many ways seems too good to be true. After all, the CT delivers genuine luxury, gets some of the best fuel economy of any car on the road at 42-mpg average and all with a starting price of under $30,000.
Fun on the street, yes, but to really see if there’s any “sport” in Lexus’ sporty hybrid we took it to the track to find out. The good news: in principle the car is set up pretty well. The bad news: the inability to turn off stability control is killing all the fun.
A HYBRID ON A RACE TRACK?
With a record high 1:43 lap time at our test track (Toronto Motorsports Park), the CT suffers from an overzealous traction and stability control system more than anything else. Sharing its powertrain with the Prius and delivering just 134-hp we never expected any great speed out of the car, but hoped to get a better handle on just how good the rest of the package is.
The car’s Sport mode is designed to reduce the intrusiveness of the systems, but even switched over to the more responsive driving mode the safety features proved to be a choke collar on the rest of the vehicle.
Lexus claims a 0-60 time of 9.8 seconds, which, while understandably slow doesn’t mean fun is out of the question. After all, a MINI Cooper is actually slower, but we’d lap it all day long if given the opportunity.
While tepid down the straights, the CT simply won’t hold decent speed in a corner, udersteering ferociously. Trying desperately to get anything resembling a quick lap time we were forced to drive in a manner quite the opposite of what any driving instructor might teach. The old “in slow, out fast” saying simply won’t work with the CT, because the stability control ensures you’re out slow regardless. So the “in fast” approach was put into use with somewhat comical results.
Making this all the more frustrating is that the CT, which comes with solid underpinnings (including a MacPherson strut front and double wishbone rear) actually wants to rotate the way a front-driver should. But as soon as it starts to, the electronics rear their protective heads and kill all the fun.
Helping the overall feel, corner exit is aided by the quick pick-up of electric boost, although that only lasts about 4 laps before the battery is depleted. That’s about as far as you’ll get on the tires too, before they start to overheat.
Surprisingly, brake fade wasn’t an issue at all. Less to do with the regenerative braking and the overall light weight of the car (at under 3,200 lbs it feels quite nimble), it’s just not possible to achieve any significant speed and so the pads don’t get overworked.
Designed for a cushy ride, the car’s solid on road feel gives way to plenty of body lean on the track. While generally not what you’re looking for in a sporty machine, we made the most of it, with the added suspension travel permitting the car to cut corners and glide over some of the larger curbing on the track without upsetting its trajectory.
Understandably the CT is no track terror, designed primarily to deliver a premium driving experience and exceptional fuel economy. That drive quality, while focused more on luxury, should, however, include some element of so-called German dynamics. On the road, where 99.9 percent (or quite likely all 100 percent) of CT drivers will keep their cars, it does. Pushed to the limits, however, and the CT’s onboard safety systems prove too effective.
Emphasizing the point that the CT was never intended to be tracked, our car’s 45-mpg rating on the drive to the paved playground dropped to just 14-mpg after a few laps.
Were we asking too much of the CT? Perhaps. Let’s remember, along with 42-mpg, the CT delivers a sizeable rear seating area, is excellently assembled with high grade materials, has 14.3 cu-ft of trunk space (34.8 cu-ft with the rear seats down), looks quite nice and quite possibly has the best quality paint job of any $30,000 car you can buy. That’s not high-30s either, but is actually under $30K, starting at just $29,120.
We wouldn’t be surprised to discover that AutoGuide is both the first and the last outlet to ever take a Lexus CT200h on a race track. Away from the apexes there are plenty of positive things to say about the CT, and to put a rose-colored spin on our hybrid track excursion, it has shown that the CT is more than just a rebadged Prius, and would be even more so were it not for the safety-conscious folks in Toyota’s legal department.