2014 Lexus CT 200h Review

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John Voelcker John Voelcker Senior Editor
August 8, 2014

The 2014 Lexus CT 200h is still the only compact luxury hybrid hatchback--and it's a lot more fun to drive than you might imagine.

The 2014 Lexus CT 200h continues into its fourth model year as the least expensive and smallest model offered by Toyota's luxury brand. It remains both its sole hachback and its only compact car, and it also remains the only luxury hybrid compact hatchback offered for sale--as it has been since 2011. The CT gets a handful of mild updates this year, including a new grille and some interior tweaks, and while it has never sold in great volume, it's considered a low-key success in the Lexus lineup.

Its mission is to offer a fun-to-drive car with a likeable character to younger buyers who haven't before considered a Lexus. They may be Prius buyers seeking a little more luxe, or more traditional luxury buyers who've decided they can downsize. Either way, like the RX crossover that not only dominates its luxury mid-size crossover segment but serves as the brand's U.S. mainstay, the little CT is backstopped by a long list of standard and available features.

A new grille and front fascia give this year's CT a frontal appearance far more closely aligned with the newer models in the Lexus lineup. The design starts with the "spindle" grille shape, and includes redesigned front and rear bumper fascias and a new design for the 17-inch alloy wheels. There are a host of little detail changes, including a roof-mounted "sharkfin" to replace the old-style aerial, plus LED bulbs for the license lamps. Otherwise, the shape of the compact hatchback remains the same: a low, somewhat aggressive and slab-sided body with a long, flat roof ending in a spoiler, standard alloy wheels, and the right amount of chrome to make it sparkle and set it apart from drab economy cars of the same size and body style.

Review continues below

Inside, the CT's interior is roomy in front and acceptable in the rear. It's a lower car than a Prius--and almost 6 inches shorter--and the driver sits low with legs more extended than in other compacts, but headroom in generous in that position. Luxury is conveyed by a wide center console dropping down from a broad, horizontal instrument panel. The console contains enough controls, switches, knobs, and displays to indicate that this is a luxury car with features galore. New inside this year is a redesigned steering wheel, updated display screens in the dashboard, and more minor details like a metal scuff plate to replace the previous plastic one. New interior colors complete the upgrades for 2014.

The rear seats fold flat, which may be a configuration used often by childless couples who decide this is a nicer alternative than the distinctive, numb driving of a Prius. The one flaw is the high load floor, due to the battery located underneath, with enough height only for grocery bags before impeding the view rearward through the slit-like tailgate window.

The powertrain of the CT remains unchanged even as the styling has been refreshed: It pairs a 98-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine with Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system. This is, essentially, a Prius powertrain in a smaller but far more refined vehicle. A nickel-metal-hydride battery pack under the rear load deck powers, and is recharged by, a pair of motor-generators that power the car alone at low speeds, add torque to supplement the engine output, and act as generators to recharge the battery on engine overrun and during regenerative braking.

Being a Lexus, the CT hybrid is tuned quite differently than the Prius whose powertrain it shares. It's meant to be more sporty, and the Sport mode not only remaps the electronic responses to acceleration and braking, it also cleverly converts the power gauge into a tachometer with red lighting around its edges. The car responds well and is surprisingly agile for a Lexus, but its numb electric power steering--a chronic Toyota weak spot--is simply uncompetitive with the best from Audi or Volvo.

The hybrid system really delivers in gas mileage, though. No other even somewhat-hot hatch gets ratings anywhere near its EPA combined rating of 42 mpg, and we saw a real-world 40 mpg in mixed use that included some quite spirited driving. Ignore the CT's Eco gauge, get used to its loud engine roar when it's revved, and your driving will be surprisingly fun--and the gas mileage will still be at the top of the charts. Other cars are creeping up slowly--we suspect the new 2014 Mazda 3 may approach that number, without resorting to a hybrid drivetrain--but for now, the CT remains the king of the compact luxury hill.

The 2014 Lexus CT has a lengthy list of features, both standard and optional, that starts with keyless ignition, Bluetooth hands-free pairing for voice and audio streaming, iPod control, SiriusXM satellite radio, and the Lexus Safety Connect system. The options list includes--among many other choices--rain-sensing windshield wipers, LED headlamps (joined this year by LED fog lamps), and the Lexus Enform navigation and real-time information system. Finally, dealers offer a further list of items under the Lexus F-Sport label that can both improve performance and further upgrade the car's appearance.

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2014 Lexus CT 200h

Styling

The 2014 Lexus CT 200h is no longer a surprising shape; it's attractive, if chunky, and luxurious inside.

Freshened to match the rest of the range this year, the 2014 Lexus CT 200h gets new front styling with the latest "spindle" shaped grille to replace a rather plain opening from earlier model years.

The bulk of the 2014 upgrades, in fact, have to do with design, both exterior and interior, plus newly added features. In addition to the grille, both front and rear plastic bumper covers and fascias have been redesigned, and the 17-inch alloy wheels get a new design as well. The trailing edge of the roof now sports a "sharkfin" radio aerial, and the license-light bulbs are now LEDs (will anyone notice?).

The updates have been applied to the same low, slab-sided hatchback with thick roof pillars that's been on sale since the 2011 model year. Overall, the CT's shape blends Lexus's flowing L-finesse design language—including smoothly curved lines and gently arced back pillars—with a pert, almost aggressive hatchback shape.

The rear window has an unusual wraparound appearance, extending into the rear pillars, and a long spoiler extends from the roof over the short tailgate. The thin, tapered taillights give it a taut look, and altogether, the shape has worn well--even if it doesn't appear as sporty today as it did when it was launched.

Inside, the digital screens in the dashboard display have been updated, there's a new steering wheel, and several minor details have changed. Two examples: the scuff plates are now metal, not plastic, along with several new color treatments for trim and upholstery. Stylish two-tone interior trim combinations are more adventurous than in any other Lexus model, set off by ash burl, bamboo, or black wood trim, or silver metal trim.

Unusual color options-- sparkly Daybreak Yellow Mica and Matador Red Mica tones, or light, glossy Starfire Pearl and Tungsten Pearl shades--join the usual silver, charcoal, and black found on every luxury model.

The few small updates for 2014 don't change the basic interior, which is upscale and conveys almost a mechanical influence--a world away from the hard plastics and Space Age dash displays in hybrids from Toyota itself. The low-set dashboard is marked by horizontal creases, with a thick center console jutting upward. Most of the minor controls are in the console, with displays in the upper zone.

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2014 Lexus CT 200h

Performance

Though not as sporty as its looks, the 2014 Lexus CT 200h is fun to drive and delivers high real-world fuel economy.

Despite the updated styling, the mechanical aspects of the 2014 Lexus CT 200h haven't changed. The luxury hybrid hatchback still borrows its powertrain from the Toyota Prius, but wraps it in an entirely different kind of vehicle--and tunes it to be far more rewarding than in any Prius model. The CT's character blends sporty notes with fuel efficiency, and while that could be a frustrating mix--think Honda CR-Z--in fact it works better than you might expect.

The 98-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine is mated to Toyota's two-motor Hybrid Synergy Drive system, for a total power output of 134 horsepower. Under the rear deck, a 1.4-kilowatt-hour nickel-metal-hydride battery stores energy from the engine and regenerative braking, and returns it when needed to add to torque from the engine. Under light loads, and at lower speeds, the electric motor can propel the car alone up to about 25 mph. There's also an "EV" mode switch that keeps the car running electric-only until the battery pack is depleted.

Driven gently, the Lexus CT is neither energetic nor sporty. But if you can ignore the engine roar when delivering maximum power, and the slightly disapproving Eco gauge, the car gets considerably peppier. Switch into the Sport mode, which reprograms the hybrid performance, power delivery, acceleration, and other control systems for more aggressive power delivery, and it gets more fun yet. Even under just part throttle, the Sport mode gives full electric assist, and best of all, the blue-rimmed power gauge morphs into a red-rimmed tachometer. The handling and retuning together make the CT feel more fun than its 0-to-60-mph of 10 seconds would indicate.

The CT has some European chassis tuning underneath, so its roadholding is far superior to any Prius model. It turns into curves crisply, and will hustle along surprisingly quickly without compromising passenger comfort. The suspension is firm, the electric power steering offers some road feel (in Sport mode, anyhow), and yet there's little road harshness transmitted into the cabin.

The CT has a few drawbacks as a driver's car, including its Prius-style shift selector knob and a lack of paddle shifters to simulate fixed gears. And the engine can drone under steady loads--think long stretches of uphill freeway. And while there's a "B" mode that increases engine braking and battery charging for long downhill stretches, we suspect most drivers will never use it. 

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2014 Lexus CT 200h

Comfort & Quality

The 2014 Lexus CT 200h is luxurious for a compact, but it's missing a few items you'd expect in a luxury model.

The 2014 Lexus CT 200h has less room inside than a Toyota Prius, but the two cars aren't really aimed at the same buyers. The front seats are comfortable, but the back seats will be short on headroom for tall riders, and tight on legroom for any adult. And because the battery pack sits under the load deck, the cargo bay is shallow, offering room only for a large load of groceries.

The CT is best used by two people with the 60/40 split rear seatback folded down--they flip forward in one easy motion--to give a long, flat cargo floor that's just low enough to carry small pieces of furniture or cartons.

Up front, however, the driver and passenger sit low, giving the driving position a sporty feel that offers plenty of headroom and legroom. The seats are thick, comfortable, and supportive--and comfortable even after several hours behind the wheel. The CT is quiet too, with virtually no wind or road noise at speed. It felt even quieter than other luxury compacts, let down only by the remarkable amount of engine noise produced by hard acceleration. Lift off, and it settles back down to its usual hush.

The cockpit is well designed for stowing odds and ends, especially for a car of this age. The shallow tray that fits smartphones is right next to a power plug and a USB input, and other little cubbies, trays, and bins are plentiful. Rear-seat passengers get less, though, including a complete lack of cupholders--one hint that the CT wasn't designed primarily for North American buyers.

The cabin materials are rich and soothing--mostly--but there are some dissonant details. The pendant-style parking brake carried over from lesser Toyotas conveys a Seventies feeling, and the hollow-feeling, cheap-looking plastics on the center console just aren't up to the luxury level of the rest of the interior. As for Remote Touch, the Lexus-standard mouse-like controller on the console that moves a cursor on the center display screen, some users will adapt to it easily and others will curse it and wish for a touchscreen or a controller with some tactile feedback.

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2014 Lexus CT 200h

Safety

With good safety scores in its corner, the Lexus CT 200h also offers a long list of standard and optional safety systems.

The 2014 Lexus CT 200h does well on safety, with a comprehensive list of active and passive safety features, and the highest scores in crash testing. The standard safety features includes stability control, anti-lock brakes, Brake Assist, and eight standard airbags (including knee bags for both front occupants). A pre-collision safety system is an option.

The Lexus CT has never been rated for crash safety by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), likely due to its low sales volume. So ratings from Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) are the only ones we have to go on. For 2014, the CT is no longer deemed a "Top Safety Pick" as it had been for several years previously, because the IIHS hasn't tested it on the new and tougher Small Overlap Front Crash test. It earns the IIHS's top rating of "Good" in all four other categories--Moderate-Overlap Front Crash, Side, Roof Strength, and Head Restraints & Seats.

The CT offers a good view out the front, even for shorter drivers. To our surprise, rearward vision was good despite both thick roof pillars and the very shallow. almost slit-like rear window in the tailgate.

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2014 Lexus CT 200h

Features

The 2014 Lexus CT 200h outdoes pretty much any other compact for standard and optional features, both electronic and luxury items.

As the least expensive model from a luxury brand, the 2014 Lexus CT 200h carries high expectations and the chance of disappointing buyers. While mass-market compact cars have added a number of formerly luxury features, the 2014 CT still delivers close to all of the functions, features, and fittings you'd anticipate in a luxury car. But they've been selected with a younger, more tech-savvy shopper in mind, reflecting the car's mission of replenishing Lexus ranks by luring in buyers who've never owned a luxury car before.

Standard features even on the base CT model include Bluetooth hands-free voice and audio streaming, SiriusXM satellite radio, fully integrated iPod control, keyless ignition, and the Lexus Safety Connect emergency alert system. Then the options list begins, including LED headlamps with washers, a power moonroof, heated front seats, rain-sensing wipers, Park Assist, and an in-mirror backup camera.

There are also packages that combine popular options into bundles: premium audio with a moonroof and/or the hard-drive based navigation system, for example. Navigation systems also include the Lexus Enform information system. A Seat Comfort package adds just the heated front seats and power adjustment for the front passenger seat.

Then there's the Lexus CT 200h F-Sport Special Edition model, with special 17-inch alloys, a slightly lowered suspension with anti-sway bars, plus premium audio and navigation, and appearance items like a larger rear spoiler, aluminum sport pedals and NuLuxe leather-trimmed seats.

The base price of a Lexus CT is around $30,000, but a heavy hand on the options list can boost the total north of $40,000. Buyers who want even more options can browse the performance and appearance accessories offered by Lexus dealers under the F-Sport range.

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2014 Lexus CT 200h

Fuel Economy

The 2014 Lexus CT 200h pulls off a tough trick by delivering real-world gas mileage very close to its 42-mpg rating.

The 2014 Lexus CT 200h faces competition from a wider range of hybrid vehicles than it did four years when it was launched. But its 42-mpg combined gas-mileage rating seems to be close to what owners get in the real world--which can't be said about newer competitors like the Ford C-Max Hybrid, recently lowered from 47 mpg to 43 mpg after a firestorm of owner complaints.

The most luxurious editions of the C-Max, or the Fusion Hybrid that uses the same powertrain, may offer competition to the CT 200h. They're larger and more capacious vehicles, but they lack the Lexus name--and the much more pleasant service and accommodation offered by the whole Lexus dealer experience.

Real-world mileage is a tricky thing. Drive the Lexus CT hard all the time, and real-world mileage could plummet into the high 20s or low 30s. But we expect most people will get close to the EPA rating of 42 mpg city, 41 mpg highway. Our own road tests have delivered numbers from the high 30s into the mid 40s, depending on how the CT was used.

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