Driven: 2011 Lexus CT200h Premium

By Tom Martin

May 25, 2011

This is a more significant car than many may realize. Based on our consumer interviews, the CT200h captures the attention of an emerging group of people who are currently car shopping because it combines some features largely missing from the market so far. This, we think, is a car that every major OEM needs to study.
The big deal here is the packaging and design. What the world has been looking for, it seems, is a mixture of:  

The advantaged functionality of a two box design (e.g. hatchback, crossover, wagon)

A strong sense of attractive, forward-thinking design

Moderate size

It seems that most crossovers and hatchbacks look too frumpy and functional, whereas the desired idea is to look good and look upscale. At the same time, the consumer view would be that many crossovers seem too big (especially too big to be fuel efficient) and many hatchbacks look too small.
Lexus seems to have come pretty close to the center of the bullseye on these parameters with the CT200h. It looks good, it looks designed, and it looks upscale. At the same time, it doesn’t seem enormous, but the shape suggests it is useful.
In case this size conversation doesn’t register, consider how the CT200h compares with a small crossover/SUV, the Audi Q5. The CT200h is twelve-inches shorter and eight-inches lower than the Q5. Those differences are big, and for this market, they say “not SUV”, which is important.
While we’re on the subject of size, we should note that some of our consumer panel thought the CT200h was slightly smaller than is desirable. Headroom and leg room are adequate for people up to and over 6', but not as generous as some have become accustomed to. When the front seats are adjusted for 6' people, legroom in back is sufficient, but nothing more. Perhaps if it were eight-inches shorter and six-inches lower than a Q5 it would work better in the US? On the other hand, if you aren't packing older teenagers or adults in the back for long drives, the CT200h will do just fine.
In any event, the packaging is slick. So are the EPA fuel mileage specifications. The CT200h is rated at 43 city, 40 highway miles per gallon. In a world of four-dollar gasoline, more attention is being paid to such numbers, and in our suburban driving test, we averaged 40.5 miles per gallon, with no attempt to be miserly.
The pricing of the CT200h is also attractive. With a base of $29,120 (for the base car—our Premium spec starts at $30,900) you can get into an attractive, efficient Lexus for what the world seems to view as a reasonable price.
Other items that we thought were on the positive side of ledger include an attractive interior design, lots of information features (operated by the nifty Lexus mouse controller), comfortable seats and a useful amount of load space with the seats down.
Once out on the road, the CT200h is about as Jekyll and Hyde as they come. The chassis is firmly sprung, with good roll control and nicely weighted steering. The car is fun to fling around, although the harder you push it, the less happy it seems. But for the cut and thrust of urban driving, it is quite responsive. Ride quality is good, though not great, with some sacrifices being made for the sake of handling.
We wish that we could be more positive about responsiveness to the accelerator pedal, but we can’t. It isn’t simply that the CT200h is slow (though at 9.8 sec zero-to-sixty, you won’t find this car at your local drag strip). More of the issue is the way the Lexus responds. The CT200h is the stereotypical CVT-based car; step on the accelerator, the car revs quickly to 3500 or 4000 rpm and then sits there making droning noises and not accelerating particularly rapidly. Every consumer who tried it commented on the noises and the lack of forward progress. One said, “I wouldn’t be willing to pull out into traffic in Eco mode”. We would add that Sport mode isn’t materially quicker.
So, in a 3130-pound car, there is a price to be paid to get above 40 miles per gallon. While the hybrid aspects of the car help, Lexus has taken the simple route of limiting power and thus fuel consumption. If you have to have that economy, and can accept that price, then the rest of the car is impressively good. If not, there are other options.
VS: Volkswagen Golf TDI
The Lexus is significantly sexier, even though both cars are basically hatchbacks. The Golf is slightly smaller outside, but slightly bigger inside. The Lexus also has a big city EPA advantage (43 vs. 30 miles per gallon). On the highway, the Golf has the advantage, however (40 for the Lexus and 42 miles per gallon for the VW). The Lexus costs about $3000 more. The Golf diesel drivetrain is worlds more entertaining than the hybrid setup in the CT200h (note that you can get a manual with the Golf, taking it another step in the entertaining direction), and the Golf chassis, while a little softer, is on a par dynamically with the Lexus, though less immediately impressive.
VS: Mini Cooper Countryman
The Lexus is sleek where the Countryman is macho cute. The Countryman is shorter by nine inches and taller by five inches, with more of an SUV set of proportions. The Countryman has more headroom and a smidge more legroom. On the road, the Lexus gets 15 more miles per gallon in the city and 5 miles per gallon more on the highway. The Lexus handling feels more sprightly, because the Countryman feels a tad portly, but the Mini drivetrain is more responsive. Roughly speaking the Lexus is $4000 more.
VS: Chevrolet Volt
The Volt design language is tilted in the direction of “car,” although it is a hatchback, while the Lexus is something new and different. The Volt is a bit bigger than the CT200h, being seven-inches longer and about the same height. Interior room on the Volt is similar, with slightly less headroom and more legroom. The Volt gets much better city mileage, rated by the EPA at 95 MPGe versus 43 MPG for the CT200h. On the highway, if you assume one-third electric and two-thirds gas usage, the Volt gets 57 miles per gallon, compared with the CT200h at 40 miles per gallon. Using all gasoline, the Volt and CT200h have the same highway rating. Dynamically, the Volt handles almost as well as the Lexus while there is no comparison in the drivetrains—the Volt being as responsive as the Lexus is sluggish, and the Volt being as refined as the Lexus is crude. The Volt costs about $3500 more than the CT200h (if you can use the EV tax credit).
2011 Lexus CT200h Premium
Engine: Inline-4 and electric motor, 1.8 liters, 16v
Output: 134 hp/152 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 9.8 sec
Top Speed: 113 mph
Weight 3130 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 43/40
Base Price: $30,900
As Tested: $38,239
On Sale: Now