After a day spent flogging the 2012 Lexus CT 200h over mountain roads, I was ready to strip the car of the F Sport badges adorning its fenders, busting it down from a rank of which it was not really worthy. I had no problem with the car's handling, but the 134 horsepower from the hybrid power system, combined with the inability to shift, couldn't deliver anything approaching excitement.
The CT 200h looks good enough, but the new Toyota Camry Hybrid is faster. And the F Sport package, a new option for the CT 200h, affects only the suspension and some cosmetic items, not the power output.
For the CT 200h, Lexus chose the same 1.8-liter engine-based hybrid system used in the Toyota Prius. That means a Lexus-tested 0-to-60 mph time of 9.8 seconds, not fast in anyone's book. On the plus side, this power train gives the CT 200h excellent fuel economy, with an average over 40 mpg in real-world driving.
As with the Prius, the CT 200h has buttons for different drive modes, in this case Eco, Sport, and EV. Sport equates to the Power button in the Prius, and has the very cool effect of turning the power gauge in the instrument cluster into a tachometer.
Not that a tachometer does any good in the CT 200h, as the car's transmission, a planetary gear set, gives the driver no shifting control. Similar to a band-driven continuously variable transmission, the CT 200h's transmission changes ratios constantly, depending on the driving conditions, and is programmed to optimize fuel economy. Stomping on the accelerator makes the car move forward at a leisurely pace, and brings no oomph to bear when exiting a turn.
Given the behavior of the power train, my experience with the CT 200h's handling mostly had to do with the way it entered turns. And that was very good. The electrically boosted power steering felt a little numb, but the car was planted and non-divey when I threw it into a turn at speed.
The F Sport package helped a little, due to its suspension tuning, and didn't hurt much. The ride quality of the CT 200h remained true to Lexus' luxury image. I got the chance to drive it back to back with the Hyundai Veloster over the same road, which featured some rough pavement, and the difference was dramatic: the Lexus provided much greater comfort.
The cosmetic elements of the F Sport package include custom 17-inch wheels, aluminum pedals, and a wire mesh grille. These elements go well with the CT 200h's overall design. F Sport also means a larger rear spoiler, making the rear window look like a very narrow, tinted band. LED running lights in the headlight casings give the front a unique character.
Even if the CT 200h is a faux hot hatchback, it makes a case for comfortable practicality. Fuel economy is the first point in its favor. The hatchback design gives it a versatile interior. The roofline is a bit low, limiting the height of the cargo area, but the space has a lot of width, and the rear seats fold down easily, making for a flat load floor.
As the CT 200h model is only a year old, it gets the current generation of Lexus cabin electronics, with the most unusual feature being the mouse-style interface. A palm-fitting joystick molded into the center console moves a cursor around on the car's LCD, with haptic feedback that let me know when the cursor was over an onscreen icon. Pushing the Enter buttons on the sides of the controller worked like a mouse click.
The car's LCD, hinged on a motorized mount, sits in the top of the dashboard. This generation of Lexus gets a hard-drive-based navigation system with traffic data, downloaded over a satellite radio data feed, overlaid on the maps. The maps are strictly 2D, with no perspective option, but worked well for route guidance. The system read out street names for upcoming turns, but it could have been more aggressive about avoiding traffic jams.
The navigation system integrates with Lexus' Enform telematics service, so I could have found a destination on my computer and sent it to the car. Other connected features include weather, fuel prices, and stock quotes downloaded from satellite radio.
This is pretty standard Lexus stuff these days, but more-advanced electronics have begun to roll out in Toyota-badged vehicles, such as the Prius v. Expect Lexus to get its own version of Toyota's Entune app integration sometime soon, but it will likely bypass the CT 200h until that model gets an update, which might not happen until 2014.
As such, the CT 200h doesn't offer Pandora or iHeartRadio, two streaming Internet music sources available in the Prius v. It does present a standard array of sources in a nice, tabbed interface, including Bluetooth audio streaming, iPod integration through a USB port, and satellite radio.
Lexus made an annoying design choice in putting the USB port under a little hatch on the center console. After just a little bit of use, I wanted to yank the hatch cover off, as it made plugging in an iPod cable or USB drive difficult. Worse, the position of the port meant my USB drive stuck up above the level of the controls, raising the possibility of the driver knocking it out of place while reaching for the drive mode control.
Other Lexus models get the option of a Mark Levinson audio system, which produces excellent sound. But Lexus seems to think the CT 200h, as an entry-level car, doesn't deserve that quality of stereo. Instead it gets a nonbranded 10-speaker system. I was not terribly impressed with the system's reproduction quality. Treble notes in some tracks sounded shrill, and its bass made no real impression.
Despite its looks, the 2012 Lexus CT 200h should not be mistaken for a sports car. Its hybrid drive system gives it excellent fuel economy, but the fact that the transmission does not let the driver work the revs limits the Lexus CT 200h where fast cornering and acceleration are concerned. Just consider it a really cool-looking hybrid. The F Sport package adds some nice cosmetic touches. Another point in favor of the car's design is the interface controller, which should be easy for anyone who has mastered a computer to use.
The CT 200h's cabin electronics fall short of the cutting edge. The navigation system works well and the audio system offers most of the sources one could want, but this stuff is all pretty standard these days. The standout feature in the cabin tech is the external data, such as gas prices and weather, brought in through satellite radio.
|Model||2012 Lexus CT 200h|
|Power train||1.8-liter gasoline-electric hybrid system, continuously variable transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||43 mpg city/40 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||41 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional hard-drive-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard, with contact list download|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible six-CD changer|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Bluetooth streaming, USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio|
|Audio system||10-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$37,009|