Remember the HS 250h Hybrid that Lexus put on sale in 2009? Well, it didn’t really work out for them. Turns out people weren’t really into buying a souped-up hybrid Corolla with a Lexus badge. In fact Lexus themselves aren’t too crazy about it. They blame it on the incredible success and market share of their own Prius, but I’m not buying that. And it’s not even that it’s a bad car – it’s not – it’s just not unique.
But that’s where the all-new Lexus CT 200h Compact Hybrid comes in. Lexus is introducing the car as a departure from the typical tree-hugging flower-loving image of current hybrids and giving it an adjective rarely associated with hybrids: fun-to-drive. While the CT 200h may look like it’s marginally based on the Prius, it’s actually an entirely new platform; that way they can get away from the uber-eco platform entirely and develop the car for what it was meant to do: carve corners and get good fuel economy while doing it.
But after driving it, the CT 200h bears more than a slight resemblance to Toyota’s Prius. Yes, it looks MUCH better than the Prius, in fact I’d say it’s a pretty damn good-looking car, with hints of hot hatches like the MazdaSpeed3, but with its own brand of luxury built-in. It handles well, and it should, given it was developed with handling in mind. But it does have the same four driving modes – EV-only (up to 28 mph for a mile,) ECO, NORMAL and SPORT, and it runs on the same 1.8-liter gasoline engine and electric motor as the Prius – both of which produce a total of 134 hp. Both are mated to an electrically-controlled CVT and both run 0-60 mph in 9.8 seconds. Despite the similarities, though, the Prius pulls off a combined 50 mpg where the CT 200h gets 42 (which is still higher than any other luxury car.)
But those are just numbers, after all. Lexus says they know the CT won’t break any records, but it’s not supposed to, either. What they want to create with the CT is “a very dynamic and engaging experience for the driver,” and they’ve taken steps to do just that. Despite the lackluster powertrain, the CT 200h features a low driver’s seat – a requirement in any sporty car – with better lateral and lumbar support. They’ve given it a thick and sporty steering wheel and modern instrument panel, equipped with a very cool dynamic gauge on the left that changes from a hybrid powertrain monitor to a tachometer automatically when switched into sport mode, which also changes the panel’s lighting from blue to red. Nice touch. The three primary modes are fairly well-defined and noticeable, with the throttle input most obvious. NORMAL mode gives a fairly linear throttle response throughout the band, ECO mode delays throttle input until you really need it, and SPORT mode gives it to you right away. SPORT also tightens up the steering for a more in-touch-with-the-road feeling.
Plenty of other steps have been taken to make the CT 200h a sportier drive than your typical hybrid, including a MacPherson strut front system with fully independent double wishbone rear suspension, a lateral dampen system to absorb body vibrations, and increased body rigidity by optimizing weld points and using a crap-load of extra bracing around the frame.
The CT is marketed at a younger crowd, which will help them dispel the “old-man’s car” reputation and get their foot in the door for making some sportier cars without seeming like they’re trying too hard. Who they’re going for here are the Gen-X and Gen-Y buyers that are stepping up from the hot-hatch and getting into their first luxury car. They’ll have an household income of around $100k, and be mostly male in their 30’s, maybe 40’s. Lexus is thinking most of the CT buyers will be brand-virgins, too. Since the CT 200h is the first luxury compact hybrid, there are no direct competitors, technically. But the folks who will be looking at the car will likely also take a look at the Audi A3, BMW 1-series, and Volvo C30.
The CT is Lexus’ entry-level model, and is priced below the IS250 at $29,120, which isn’t all that bad considering the standard equipment – push-button start, power moonroof, dual-zone climate, personalized settings, power driver’s seat, a good 6-speaker audio system with USB and auxiliary input, Bluetooth, automatic headlights, LED DRLs and tail lights, and quite a few other standard features. Leather is optional, but standard is NuLuxe – a new leather-like material that’s a pretty good substitute. You can tell a difference if you’re familiar with leather, but not much of one. More proof it’s aimed at a younger crowd: an Electronic Device Holder that will have various holders for storing your devices within constant view and arms reach.
Overall, the CT 200h is a pretty smart move for Lexus that will definitely get them some new buyers. It’s not a boring car, which has been Lexus’ problem in the past, and it’s easily one of their best looking models. It drives nice, but I’m afraid that until they get rid of that anemic powertrain from the Prius it’s going to feel like exactly that – a souped-up Prius.
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The CT 200h goes on sale in March this year. You can head over to Lexus’ promo site for the CT,to check out more info, get updates, and configure your own. Also make sure to check out all the images below.