When the Lexus CT 200h was launched in Australia at the end of March, it was priced almost identically to its under-the-skin twin, the Toyota Prius. A Lexus for the price of a Toyota? Sign me up.
But when Toyota Australia slashed Prius pricing by as much as $7500 just two weeks later, the definition of the baby Lexus changed. What was once a Prius with a sexy hatchback body is now a premium car with Toyota underpinnings. The value equation has undeniably changed, but what hasn’t changed is that the CT 200h will still make many people in the market for a frugal, premium small car very happy.
When you factor in its level of standard equipment, the $49,900 F Sport model is the best value CT 200h. Lexus Australia expects it to be the most popular model in the CT range.
The Lexus Hybrid Drive powertrain in the F Sport is the same as the rest of the CT 200h range. The system combines a 73kW/142Nm 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol engine and a 60kW/207Nm electric motor for maximum combined power output of 100kW (you cannot simply add the two figures together as the engine and electric motor peak at different points in the rev range). That 100kW maximum power figure puts the F Sport on par with a base model Toyota Corolla. A nickel-metal-hydride battery powers the electric motor, and a continuously variable transmission drives the CT’s front wheels.
If it’s a sports hatch you’re after, the CT 200h F Sport will disappoint. You will be much happier with a Subaru WRX or a Volkswagen Golf R, both of which are cheaper to buy and significantly more fun to drive.
The CT 200h F Sport was never designed to be a sports car. It’s an ultra-frugal hatchback with a sporting theme and decidedly more character than the rest of the line-up. As a result, the F Sport competes with other high-end fuel-misers like the Audi A3 2.0 TDI ($44,900), Mercedes-Benz B180 CDI ($49,090), MINI Cooper SD ALL4 Countryman ($52,100) and the Toyota Prius i-Tech ($45,990).
Despite the common powertrain, the F Sport is the most engaging model to drive in the CT 200h range. Lexus’ engineers have given it a unique suspension setup with front and rear performance dampers and revised spring rates. The result is a tighter, stiffer ride with added feedback for the driver, and an overall more responsive and dynamic feel.
Depending on the conditions and your own mood, you can select between four driving modes. EV mode relies only on the battery and electric motor for propulsion. It works at speeds of up to 45km/h and will power the car continuously for around two kilometres. However, thanks to the CT’s regenerative braking system (which collects braking energy and stores it in the battery), you can easily travel twice that distance in slow city traffic or on quiet urban roads. In EV mode, the CT is reminiscent of a tram, quietly (and somewhat addictively) whirring and whistling as it accelerates and brakes.
When it comes time to call on petrol power you have three choices. As the name suggests, Eco mode is the most efficient. It tempers your throttle inputs and encourages the electric motor to support the petrol engine whenever possible. Any fears that the air conditioner will slow to a trickle when driving up steep hills are completely unfounded. The system is equally effective in all modes.
Normal mode is similar to Eco, although the accelerator is a little more responsive and the ratio of electric motor to petrol propulsion is more balanced. Both work well around town when you’re after a smooth, efficient drive, but the delayed reaction from the throttle does take a while to get used to and can frustrate at times.
When you’re after a more immediate response, Sport mode is your best option. The petrol engine jumps in almost instantly and the reaction to your inputs are much more like a conventional car. Sport mode is perfect for taking off briskly at lights and overtaking on the highway, and although the petrol engine sounds a little raspy under hard acceleration, it obeys your commands with minimal fuss.
The best thing about being in Sport mode in the F Sport model is the mood change within the cabin. The instrument panel illumination changes from deep blue to bright red and a tachometer replaces the standard Eco gauge. Even though the CVT doesn’t peak and blip like a traditional transmission, you still get a kick out of watching it rev spiritedly towards 5000rpm.
Those who prefer keeping an eye on smaller numbers will be equally entertained. All four models use just 4.1 litres/100km on the combined cycle, and unlike most cars, the CT is more frugal in the city (4.0) than on the highway (4.1) thanks to its hybridisation.
The Prius – at 3.9 litres/100km – is the only petrol-powered vehicle that pips the Lexus for economy in Australia. The other competitors mentioned above are all diesels and still trail the F Sport by a considerable margin: Audi A3 (5.7 litres/100km), Mercedes-Benz B180 (5.6 litres/100km), MINI Countryman SD (4.9 litres/100km). In terms of emissions, the CT 200h is the second-cleanest internal combustion car in the country, with a 95g/km CO2 average.
The cabin of the CT 200h is quiet, with minimal road, tyre and wind noise, and NVH levels are no longer a concern (they were when Lexus previewed the vehicle late last year). The interior of the F Sport is much more complete than the entry-level Prestige, which has a stripped-out feel. The F Sport’s split-level dashboard/console layout is clean and user-friendly, although there’s a lot of hard, grey plastic for a $50,000 car. It looks best at night when occupants are met by a dazzling array of light and colour.
The stereo is a treat to listen to from every seating position, but unfortunately you can’t stream music wirelessly via Bluetooth. The centre console contains USB and AUX ports, as well as a removable holder that perfectly fits an iPhone. Oddly, however, as the holder sits on top of the ports, you can’t use the two at the same time. You have to stash you phone or music player elsewhere when it’s plugged in.
The most disappointing aspect of the interior is the retractable central screen. It’s a low-resolution display with graphics that look about 10 years old. Less-tech-savvy drivers may appreciate the simple layout, but the iPod generation is unlikely to warm to it.
The satellite navigation is also a concern, something I found when programming a simple nine-kilometre trip from Sydney’s North Shore to the Fish Market in Pyrmont. The system located the destination and mapped a course, but lost all sense of direction somewhere along the way. I was intent on seeing just where it would take me, but gave up once I was beyond Sydney International Airport (around 15km off course) and still heading the wrong way. The CT 200h may be one of the most fuel efficient cars on the market, but if the sat-nav guides you on paths twice the necessary distance, the economy advantages will be quickly eroded. That said, perhaps I simply got it wrong.
Most drivers will find a sweet spot in their 10-way electrically adjustable seat. Both front pews offer plenty of support and include seat heaters to take the chill off the black leather lining. The only minor detraction is the lack of a usable right armrest, which takes away slightly from cruising comfort. The traditional door rest is too low and the doorsill is uncomfortably high. When you do plant both hands firmly on the leather sports steering wheel, however, it feels nice and compact and is well contoured.
Head, leg and shoulder room were not an issue for two five-foot-something back-seat passengers. However, both complained of slight lower back stiffness after an hour tucked away in the rear. With the battery and a space-saver spare packaged under the floor, the 375-litre luggage compartment lacks height, but is big enough to swallow the weekly groceries. It’s a larger luggage volume than the A3 and the MINI Countryman, but trails the Prius and the van-like B-Class. If you need more space, the 60:40 rear seats fold perfectly flat and open up 985 litres, which will satisfy the needs of most couples.
Looks are subjective, but the CT 200h is without doubt one of the sharpest cars in the premium small segment, and by far the hottest looking hybrid on the market. Over the base model, the F Sport gets smoky 17-inch alloy wheels; sports grille, bumpers, side skirts, rear spoiler, scuff plates and sports pedals; front fog lamps; F Sport badging; rear and rear-side privacy glass; and exterior mirrors with memory, self-dimming and auto-retract. The alloys look so good that they’re almost worth the $9910 price difference on their own.
Safety is first-rate with eight airbags (dual front, side, curtain and driver and passenger knee) and all the standard electric systems (ABS, electronic brakeforce distribution, brake assist, stability control and traction control), as well as emergency flashing brake lights and LED daytime running lights.
Given the similarities between the vehicles, the Prius i-Tech is likely to be the F Sport’s strongest competitor. If in-car technology is a priority, the Prius is well out in front with features like a radar-based cruise control system, head-up display, Touch Tracer interior functionality, LED headlights, solar panel ventilation and a moonroof all included in the $45,990 list price.
But for some people, all that tech will be too much. If all you want are two simple things – Prius-like fuel consumption in a package that looks and rides like a traditional hot hatch – the Lexus CT 200h F Sport is the only car in Australia that fits the bill.