Thursday, June 2, 2011

Review: Lexus CT200 h

The Lexus lineup has been fairly predictable as of late. Like their parent company, Lexus keeps a safe line of conservatively designed sedans and crossovers to appeal to the largest audience possible. Other than the addition of the LF-A halo car, an ultra exclusive, ultra expensive supercar that is all but impossible to own. However, Lexus have upped the excitement level a bit with an all-new addition to the lineup, making their first foray into the luxury compact market with the CT200 h, but with a twist. This bold looking hatch is sporting Prius power.

Prius tech aside, Lexus has put a fair bit of emphases on this car being a fun to drive hybrid, a sporty hybrid if you will. Well, up until about a year ago, I thought just about everyone at Toyota and Lexus had forgotten what fun meant. And when you’re talking about a fun hybrid, Honda had already beat Lexus to the punch with the 6-speed manual transmission CRZ coupe, which may be slow, but is still great fun. However, like the CRZ, the CT200 h is indeed a well balanced, flat cornering, nimble little hatch that I must admit, is good fun to throw around. However, inevitably with any car with “hybrid” attached to its name, there is always a sacrifice or two to endure, and the CT200 has a couple big ones if you’re looking for a fun to drive, eco conscious luxury hatch.

As Lexus is one of few companies that still employ rear-wheel-drive vehicles, I was a bit let down to find the CT in front-wheel-drive format, however, it’s not a big deal and FWD’s can still be fun. Also, like the CRZ, there isn’t a whole lot of get up and go. The extra weight of the batteries, hybrid electronics and electric motor means the only other car you will want to be drag racing at the lights is another hybrid; again, not that big of a problem as the CRZ has proved. However, what killed the playful side for me was the CVT automatic gearbox. Now, CVT’s, or Continuously Variable Transmissions, are wonderful at what they do, and that’s getting the absolute best fuel efficiency possible. When mounted in the CT’s engine bay with the 1.8L petrol engine and Lexus Hybrid Drive system, the CVT works wonderfully to eek an impressive 4.6L/100km combined fuel efficiency. Even as I ran the car through its paces in the highlands of the Rocky Mountains, I averaged an equally impressive 5.8L/100km. But when you want to take an inspired Sunday drive through the mountains, the constant howl of the engine and lack of any gearshifts can make what should be a fun car to drive, rather mundane, and to make things worse, Lexus even added paddle shifters to a car that doesn’t have any gears. That makes about as much sense as a male cologne commercial, and is equally as painful to endure. Unfortunately this is the only flavour you can get this car in, and Lexus say there are no plans for addition drivetrain options.

But lets move to the next big story with this car, that of its shape and looks. Personally I love the cars shape, a compact hatch is just what this market needed, and it is great to see that Lexus had the balls to jump in feet first with the CT, while BMW kept the 135 hatch at home. Great shape, however, the finer touches are still very safe. Like every Lexus, and Toyota for that matter, the CT's design sticks with the tried and true styling’s, designed not to upset anyone. However, while the CT200 h may sit middle of the road, I’m pleased to see that it does sit much closer to the exciting side of the spectrum.

If the exterior design had me pleasantly surprised, the interior had me head over heals as Lexus really hit the nail on the head here. Lexus interiors have never really sat right with me; however, the CT200 h sports a fantastic interior design. Climate control and stereo controls are all easy to use and are built of the finest quality in terms of touch and feel. The whole interior for that mater is top rate, as seats are very comfortable and will keep the driver refreshed even after the longest of road trips. Rear seating is spacious and comfortable, and with the rear hatch, loading large items into the rear cargo compartment is a snap. Getting back to the dash, driver controls consist of the joystick shifter you find in the Prius and HS250 h as well as the Lexus satnav mouse control and a Driving Mode selector that allows the driver to operate the car in either EV mode (electric power only,) Eco mode, Normal mode and finally Sport. Each mode after EV, improves throttle response to the engine while increasing or decreasing power directed to power zapping features such as AC.

In terms of the safety aspect, Lexus has filled the CT with no fewer than 8-airbags, active seat headrests and a myriad of electronic driving aids, which include Traction Control, Electronic Brake Force Distribution and Stability Control. All good for the average driver, however, if I’m looking to have a bit of fun, these all get turned off. Unfortunately, there is no off button to push, so the CT200 h will always be in a “mom knows best” frame of mind.

So, how does the CT fair against it’s competition? Well what competition is the real question? In terms of luxury compact hybrids, the CT200 h steals the show as the only real option on the market. If you are looking for an extremely fuel-efficient luxury compact, then you can add the Audi A3 TDI to the equation. Think of the luxury compact segment as a whole, than you can throw the BMW 1-Series and Mercedes B-Class into the mix as well. In reality, the A3 TDI is the closest match, with a great design; fuel sipping efficiency and sporty handling.

So who is the Lexus for? That all depends on what you are looking for in a luxury compact. If fuel efficiency and lowering your CO2’s is your prime concern, the CT200 h will be all the more attractive, however, if your looking for a fuel efficient car and think that power is still a big part of the performance equation, the A3 may be a little more along your lines. If economy isn't your thing and you want a pure, high performance barn-burner, the BMW is you vehicle. However, if you want a smart looking hatch, that gets great mileage and you want to give your internal environmentalist some good karma, the CT200 h is well worth taking a good look at.

MSRP: $30,950
Price as tested: $39,417
Type: 5-door, compact hatch
Engine: 1.8L I-4 with electronic assist
Horsepower: 134
Torque: NA
Transmission: CVT automatic
Layout: Front engine, front wheel drive
Brakes: Four-wheel discs
Fuel Economy (L/100km): 4.3L city, 4.8L highway