July 10th, 2013 by Steve Cypher

 

A week spent in the fuel efficient compact hatchback from Toyotas luxury brand

Pros:

Fuel economy
Interior appointments
Overall handling

Cons:

Engine and transmission performance
Rear seat room
Limited side and rear visibility

2013 Lexus CT 200h

The Lexus CT 200h is one of the newest Lexus models, having been around since just March of 2011 here in the U.S. when it was introduced as a 2011 model. Certainly on paper the idea of a sporty sub-$33,000 Lexus that’s also easy on the wallet at the gas pump appears to be a no-brainer.

But theory and reality don’t always coincide and, despite its many positives, such is the case with the CT 200h. This isn’t to say that the smallest of Lexi is a total disappointment – far from it. But the fact remains that it could be so much more.

Exterior

Walk by this Lexus in a parking lot and you may do a double take. More than once in the week we had it passersby mistook it for a Mazda3 – despite the fact that, from the front, its softer version of the signature Lexus “spindle” grille is far more elegant that the current smiley-faced visage out of Hiroshima.

The grille is flanked by a deeply recessed pair of stylized horizontal headlamp enclosures featuring L-shaped LED daytime running lights and a conventional high-beam lamp with either a single halogen projector low-beam light source or optional twin LED low beam lamps.

The lower air intake is marginally shorter and wider than the grill and is blanked by deeply recessed fog light enclosures housing round fog lights.

Along the sides it’s pretty standard fare with only modest front and rear wheel arches and a horizontal crease that splits the space between the rising beltline and the door handles.

Things start to get interesting aft of the largish reverse-kink C-pillar. Here the horizontal crease becomes a distinct shoulder line, completely wrapping around the rear hatch. Above it is a rear window that features a wrap-around design – Lexus refers to it as a “slingshot rear graphic” – although from the inside the windows aft of the C-pillars are separate and distinct from the hatch glass.

In profile the CT 200h features a steeply raked windshield and long, flowing roofline. Its drag coefficient of 0.29 the result of a number of tweaks to the bodyworks including such details as compact door mirrors, a tapered cabin shape, aerodynamic fins at the corners of the rear window and a finned rear undercover.

Interior

Overall interior fit and finish is excellent. The steering wheel both tilts and telescopes and I found the leather-trimmed front seats to be both comfortable and supportive. There is also ample shoulder and legroom for front seat passengers, although tall drivers might find the headroom to be a bit tight. Those in back, especially if seated three across, will find the accommodations to be less than adequate.

The dashboard follows the current Toyota school of design with a horizontal motif, although the Lexus influence can be seen in the one-piece dash cover. Black soft-touch surfaces abound and are offset by brushed silver trim. This makes the chrome-finished, Prius-like shifter, which you flick to select transmission modes, all the more obvious.

All major vehicle controls are backlit, within easy reach of the driver, are very intuitive and operate smoothly. I was able to pair my iPhone to the CT 200h’s Bluetooth system in under 2 minutes without having to consult the owner’s manual.

Our tester came with the Premium Package with Navigation that included Lexus’s remote-touch joystick that resided atop the overly-large center console. Although it works well even giving the user haptic-feedback, I found that it could be overly-sensitive. Another downside is that the system can demand too much of the driver’s attention where the best option is often pulling off to the side of the road to perform certain functions.

Another feature that I found particularly annoying was the pop-up display screen that rises out of the upper center dashboard, spoiling the aesthetics and blocking a portion of the driver’s outward view. Fortunately a button on the console allows you to park it in the closed position, although it will rise if reverse is engaged to display the view from the rearview camera.

As with most hybrids, cargo volume is compromised by the location of the nickel-metal hydride battery pack, although the miserly 14.3 cubic feet is still very useful and the rear seat also splits and folds flat for additional hauling capability.

Finally, I have two observations about the interior. The first is that for a hatchback there aren’t many handy cubbies in which to store things. Secondly, the lower door and console trim appears low rent even for an entry-level luxury vehicle.

Equipment

Although there is just one trim level, the CT 200h is available with a total of six option packages – beginning with the $600 Seat Comfort Package and culminating in the $6,770 Navigation Package with “Additional Options” – the same name, incidentally, given to all three upper trim packages.

Befitting its luxury cred, the CT comes with a long list of standard features that, in addition to the standard power and connectivity bits, includes push button start, power tilt and slide moonroof, automatic on/off projector beam headlamps and simulated leather with piano black trim.

Our tester came with three premium packages.

The first, an $890 option, included an uplevel audio system with 10 speakers, a 6-disc CD changer, auto-dimming rearview mirror and Homelink.

The second, a $1,930 Leather Package, included perforated leather-trimmed seats, rain-sensing wipers and auto-dimming outside mirrors that tilted down when the vehicle was put in reverse.

The third was a $2,735 navigation system that included a backup monitor, the Lexus Enform infotainment system (with a 1-year subscription) and HD radio along with a 90-day subscription to SiriusXM NavTraffic, Sirius XM NavWeather and Sirius XM fuel prices, sports & stock.

Standard safety equipment includes eight airbags, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, electronic brakeforce distribution, brake assist, stability control, traction control, electronic throttle control and smart stop technology.

On the road

The CT 200h may look sporty, but it’s styling writes a check that its engine and transmission can’t cash.

That being said, on the road, the CT exhibits a smooth and well-controlled ride, with no noticeable body lean in tight corners. Most road imperfections were soaked up with aplomb. The steering fails to communicate much on-center, but the ratio is fairly quick and the weight builds nicely. The brakes, for the most part, were easy to modulate, although dealing with the regen feature can make this a bit of a challenge at times. Overall handling, though, was nimble.

Driving goodness, unfortunately, stopped right there. With a curb weight of 3,130 pounds and just 134 horsepower from its Prius-based powertrain, overall performance could be expected to be a bit subpar. But throw in a less than inspiring CVT tranny and things quickly go south from subpar to downright sluggish.

Mashing down on the throttle elicits, to paraphrase the Bard, much “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Gas mileage, on the other hand, was generally good for a vehicle this size as I averaged 42.2 miles per gallon in mostly city driving (the EPA estimates are 43/40/42 city/highway/combined mpg). But the fact is that’s nearly 7 mpg less than I averaged in a Prius and while it’s better than the 29.5 mpg I managed in a Mazda Mazda3, both are rated at 40 mpg highway and the 3 is far and away the more entertaining hatch to drive – that is, if entertainment is what you’re looking for.

Pricing

Lexus suggested retail pricing, including an $895 destination charge, begins at $32,945 for the entry trim level and can top out at over $42,000 for a fully optioned and accessorized example. Adding the previously mention options to our Agate Pearl example plus illuminated door sills ($299) and premium floor mats ($280) meant that the vehicle we tested checked in at $39,079.

The Bottom Line

Like the Toyota Prius, the Lexus CT 200h isn’t for everybody. But unlike the Prius, its sporty looks and better than average handling beg for more than just the tepid hybrid/CVT combo found under the hood. In this respect, car shoppers looking for the Lexus version of an Audi A3 will be disappointed.

But those buyers looking for the Lexus ownership experience at an entry-level price with touches of luxury and better than average fuel economy can now breathe easy as their ship has indeed come in.


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