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The 2015 Lexus CT 200h is both the most affordable and the smallest model in the lineup of Toyota's luxury brand. It's a five-door compact hatchback--no sedan is available--and it comes solely as a hybrid-electric vehicle. That puts it in a category of one: It's the only luxury hybrid hatchback sold in the U.S. But as a Lexus, the little CT is backstopped by a long list of standard and available features--and the cosseting of a much more personalized and attentive dealership experience.
As the entry-level Lexus, the CT takes on the mission of providing a car that likeable and fun to drive for buyers who are just starting to consider a Lexus for the first time. That pool covers a range of ages and statuses, from traditional luxury buyers who've decided they can downsize to Prius buyers seeking a little more luxe. In theory, it will also attract younger buyers than the bigger and more prestigious Lexus models, but starting around $33,000 and rising from there, it still may not be a car for the recent college graduate.
Now in its fifth model year, the 2015 CT has just a handful of upgrades. The styling was updated last year, adding the so-called spindle grille used by all new Lexus models. This year, the CT also gains an updated Lexus Enform infotainment system and the addition of Siri Eyes-Free Mode as well.
Rumor has it that Lexus will expand the CT lineup to include a compact four-door sedan when the model is replaced in 2017 or 2018. With increasing competition in the small luxury segment--most notably the Mercedes-Benz CLA and the all-new Audi A3 sedan--it looks like Lexus was prescient in launching the CT way back as a 2011 model. Mercedes has now added the GLA crossover to the CLA sedan, and Audi has just launched its Q3 crossover as well, so it's not impossible that the Lexus CT could gain not only that four-door sedan but also a crossover smaller than the NX it has just launched for 2015.
Meanwhile, the new grille and front fascia it acquired last year give the CT a frontal appearance far closer to those of the newest models in the Lexus line. 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. The update also 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.
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 last year were 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.
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: 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 agile, 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--the new Mazda 3 approaches that number, without resorting to a hybrid drivetrain--but for now, the CT remains the king of the compact luxury hill.
The 2015 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.