2012 Lexus CT 200h Review

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The Car Connection
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The Car Connection

The Car Connection Expert Review

Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Deputy Editor
January 20, 2012

The 2012 Lexus CT 200h is a surprisingly stylish, fun, and unexpected car, blending Lexus levels of refinement with superb hybrid gas mileage. It's the sole compact luxury hybrid hatch, but it offers good value and a new way of driving green.

Launched last year, the 2012 Lexus CT 200h is the car that redeems Lexus after the far-less-than-compelling HS 250h that came the year before it. The compact luxury hybrid hatchback--a category of one, at the moment--is surprisingly likable, fun to drive, and feature-packed. It's a sporty, green, tech-savvy entry luxury model. It can appeal both to first-time luxury buyers and Prius owners ready for a little more luxe in their driving lives.

The CT 200h is roughly the same size and shape as the Toyota Matrix hatchback, but it has nothing in common with that Corolla-based bargain-basement model. It's lower and more aggressive looking, almost in the same class as the high-performance MazdaSpeed3. Inside, the upscale design and fittings set it miles apart from the old "econobox" stereotype of small hatchbacks. Its low-set instrument panel is heavily horizontal, but with a thick center console containing lots of controls--a mating of hybrid tech with luxury design cues.

Mechanically, it's similar to a  2012 Prius, with a 98-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine paired with Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive transmission, which contains a pair of electric motor-generators. A nickel-metal-hydride battery pack under the rear deck stores energy produced on engine overrun and regenerative braking, using it to supplement the engine torque and, at low speeds, propel the car alone.

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The electronic tuning differs from the Prius, though, to make it a sportier drive in general. And a Sport mode changes most of the controls, giving full electric assist at partial throttle and changing the power gauge into a red-rimmed tachometer. But its electric power steering is still numb, a chronic Toyota issue, and it's not quite in the same league as sporty hatches like the Audi A3 or Volvo C30.

And neither of those cars returns anything close to the combined 40 mpg ore more the CT 200h can deliver, even when Sport mode is frequently used. Learn to ignore the Eco gauge, and the rather loud engine note when revved, and you'll have fun driving while still getting gas mileage that's at the top of the ranks.

The 2012 Lexus CT 200h is roughly 4 inches shorter in the wheelbase than a Prius, almost 6 inches shorter overall, but the interior remains roomy--and the driver's seating position is particularly good. You sit somewhat lower, which makes the CT feel sportier, and the rear seat backs fold flat for a roomy cargo area when there are only two occupants.

As befits a Lexus, standard technology features include keyless ignition, fully integrated iPod control, Bluetooth hands-free voice and audio streaming, SiriusXM satellite radio, and Lexus Safety Connect. Among the many options are LED headlamps, the Lexus Enform real-time information and navigation system, and rain-sensing wiper. Dealers can also install a full line of performance and appearance accessories under the F-Sport label.

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2012 Lexus CT 200h

Styling

The 2012 Lexus CT 200h has a hybrid-exclusive body style that looks good from every angle and stands out as very different than the Prius.

The 2012 Lexus CT 200h has the silhouette of a hot hatch, as well as a hybrid-exclusive body style, so those in the know will have no trouble picking the CT out as a hybrid. 

Adding to this model's unique look, it isn't merely a hatchback form of the Lexus HS sedan. The CT 200h has an entirely different design, building on Prius goodness and moving forward with some other pieces and concepts from other Toyota/Lexus models and becoming a model that stands alone. While the CT200h might look a bit like a doppelganger of the Toyota Matrix from some angles, it's not at all based on the budget-priced Toyota hatch, either.

Overall, the CT looks like a city-savvy hot hatch, ready to take on the Subaru WRX, Volkswagen GTI, or Speed3. The side profile of the new CT 200h is clean and neat, yet a little racy, and it combines Lexus's flowing L-finesse design language—evident in the smoothly curved sheetmetal and gently arced back pillar—with a pert, even slightly aggressive hatchback profile. At the front, the grille and air dam have much in common, design-wise, with the IS compact sport sedans, although the headlamps and 'eyebrow' marker lamps look better detailed. In back, the thin, tapered taillamps and sharp, roof-extended spoiler add a more aggressive look.

You won't find any basic or economy-minded feel to the interior, and the overall effect is that a cockpit feel is paired with an airy design. The 2012 CT is way more upscale in look and feel than any other high-mileage hybrids, with an interior look and feel that's a little less smooth, a little more mechanically influenced, as we've seen on other new Lexus models as of late. The instrument panel doesn't have anything in common with that of the Prius; there's an (upper) display zone, while most of the controls are relegated to the (lower) control zone that's part of the center console, jutting upward.it's somewhat low-set, with horizontal creases and a thick center console.  

Lexus is clearly attempting to appeal to a more youthful, adventurous crowd with the CT's styling, and its colors themselves are a little more daring—including hues such as sparkly Daybreak Yellow Mica and Matador Red Mica tones, and light, glossy Starfire Pearl and Tungsten Pearl shades. The interior can be had in a stylish two-tone charcoal/caramel combination, along with several blacks and grays; upholsteries include a newly standard NuLuxe synthetic in Black, Ecru, or Caramel, with Black or Water Gray leather optional. The luxury cabin look is kept sharp with simple black, bamboo or ash burl wood, or metal trims.

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2012 Lexus CT 200h

Performance

The 2012 Lexus CT 200h doesn't quite deliver the racier performance that's hinted in its design, but it is the best-handling of the high-mileage hybrids.

The 2012 Lexus CT 200h is pitched as an alternative that's a little sportier than other eco-minded hybrids, and mostly that's true. But you won't find its performance to be as engaging or responsive as that of other entry-luxury hatchbacks like the Audi A3 or Volvo C30.

Mechanically, there's much in common with the 2012 Prius; You'll find the same 98-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine with a 650-volt (battery peak 36-hp) electric motor system, altogether making 134 horsepower. And just as in the Prius, a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack under the rear deck stores energy produced by the engine and from regenerative braking, using it to supplement the engine torque and, at low speeds, propel the car alone.

As you nudge the little Prius-style shift lever over and down to 'D,' and first get underway, the CT driving experience isn't particularly energetic or pulse-raising. But learn to ignore the little Eco gauge and the not-at-all sporty protestations of the engine and put your right foot into it a little more, and it's more promising.

The key difference from the Prius is the way that the CT 200h is tuned--electronically, of course. A Sport mode changes most of the controls, giving full electric assist at partial throttle, firming up the steering, and changing the power gauge into a red-rimmed tachometer. Lexus has said that the CT takes just under ten seconds to get to 60 mph (slightly faster than the Prius), but if you drive in Sport mode (and again ignore the coarse sound of the engine, a psychological barrier of sorts), it responds and accelerates as if it had a larger four under the hood. 

The CT is arguably the best-handling compact hybrid vehicle yet. As we experienced over the rougher road surfaces up at the top of the pass, the CT 200h turns in crisply and can be hustled along surprisingly quickly without jostling passengers; road harshness is kept out of the cabin, yet the suspension is quite firm and the steering manages (in Sport mode) to transmit some road feel and actually kick back on rutted surfaces.

The CT 200h includes an EV mode, as does the Prius. Press a button next to the controller, and provided the battery is properly charged, you go light on the accelerator, and a number of other conditions are met, you can drive at speeds of up to about 23 mph for short distances (into parking structures and such) on electric power only.

While the Lexus has tried hard to make the CT 200h feel sporty, there are some ways that it's simply not. One barrier is the Prius-style shift knob, and the lack of paddle-shifters. For steep downhill grades, there's a 'B' mode that allows more engine braking, but in any case on long uphills or switchbacks, the steady drone of the engine might signal you to slow down, even if the CT's stout planetary-gear mechanicals are up to the task.

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2012 Lexus CT 200h

Comfort & Quality

The 2012 CT 200h lacks the comprehensive luxury feel and some of the thoughtful details of other Lexus products, but it's quite comfortable and very versatile.

The 2012 Lexus CT 200h is about four inches shorter in wheelbase than a Prius, and almost six inches shorter overall, but the interior remains roomy--and the driver's seating position is particularly good. You sit somewhat lower, which makes the CT feel sportier, and the rear seat backs fold flat for a roomy cargo area when there are only two occupants.

Part of what helps the CT combine a feeling of spaciousness with a sporty driving feel is its seating position, which in front and in back was completely redesigned and reconceived versus the Prius and HS 250h. Engineers and interior designers made sure that the 'H-point' of the front seats—the height of the front passengers' hip joints—is actually below the car's center of mass. Otherwise, the front seats themselves are very comfortable and supportive.

In back, there's not much legroom, and some adults will find headroom tight. But there's a lot of versatility in the package; the 60/40-split seatbacks fold forward in one fluid motion, providing a flat cargo floor that's a little higher than in comparable gas-only hatchbacks, but low enough to allow enough height for small pieces of furniture, for example. Even with the seatbacks up, there's enough room for a large load of groceries, and a retractable cargo cover helps keep valuables out of sight.

Otherwise, there are lots of small cubbies in the CT. A large, shallow cargo tray good for smartphones is just inches away from a USB input and power plug. But an oversight--one that hints that the CT wasn't originally intended for North America--is that there are no cupholders for rear passengers. Provided you don't need Big Gulp-sized ones, those in front are perfectly fine for the Lexus crowd.

The cabin is outfitted in rich materials that look borrowed from more expensive Lexus models, although there are a few details that scream out parts-bin—like the old-style LCD display on the base sound system, which doesn't match the font or display used for climate control; and the chrome shift lever, which seemed to be magnet for fingerprint smudges. Center-console plastics seem to be a little cheap-looking and hollow-feeling for a luxury brand, too.

And the more we use Remote Touch—a computer-mouse-like controller that requires you to keep your eyes on the screen for the entire time you're making a selection—the more we wish for either a touch screen, touchpad, or a controller that has tactile feedback.

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While there's a surprising amount of engine noise when you're accelerating in the 2012 CT 200h, we noticed almost no wind or road noise, and at cruising speeds it felt quieter than other luxury compacts.
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2012 Lexus CT 200h

Safety

Going green doesn't appear to have had any negative effect on the safety of the 2012 Lexus CT 200h; and going by crash-test results, it's one of the top-rated hybrids for safety.

Safety is a valid concern for luxury shoppers perhaps downsizing from a larger vehicle to the 2012 Lexus CT 200h. But with excellent crash-test scores and a comprehensive set of passive and active safety features, the CT should ease those worries.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hasn't yet rated the CT 200h. But in Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) tests, it's earned top 'good' ratings in all categories--as well as the vaunted Top Safety Pick designation.

Whether you consider it a luxury car or a high-mileage hybrid, the 2012 CT 200h comes with a very respectable set of safety features. Stability control, anti-lock brakes, Brake Assist, and eight standard airbags (including knee bags for both front occupants) are all standard and a Pre-Collision Safety System is optional.

Thankfully, the beltline isn't too high, so even shorter drivers will have a good view out ahead over the hood, as well as to the side; what's more, we found rearward vision to be surprisingly good, despite those thick rear pillars—in part, because you're down at traffic level.

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2012 Lexus CT 200h

Features

The 2012 Lexus CT 200h is a decent value, and while there's plenty in standard guise to make those stepping up from a Prius happy, deep-pocketed luxury shoppers have plenty of potential extras to add.

Since the CT 200h bears the Lexus badge, a strong feature set is expected, and that's what is delivered here. Lexus appears to have hit all the commonly desired features—including plenty for those younger, more tech-savvy shoppers.

Keyless ignition, fully integrated iPod control, Bluetooth hands-free voice and audio streaming, SiriusXM satellite radio, and Lexus Safety Connect are all a starting point, and included at the base level. Among the many options are LED headlamps, the Lexus Enform real-time information and navigation system, and rain-sensing wiper.

Dealers can also install a full line of performance and appearance accessories under the F-Sport label, and for 2012 there's a special Lexus CT 200h F-Sport Special Edition model that adds a host of performance upgrades plus aluminum sport pedals and NuLuxe leather-trimmed seats, along with special 17-inch alloys, a larger rear spoiler, and pearlescent paint. Functionally, it gets a slightly lowered suspension with anti-sway bars, plus premium audio and navigation.

Otherwise, there's plenty of potential for options, and we predict that choosing liberally from the list will drive the CT's sub-$30,000 base sticker price up over the $40k mark. Possibilities include LED headlamps with washers, a power moonroof, heated front seats, an in-mirror backup camera, rain-sensing wipers, and a couple of substantial packages that bundle premium audio with a moonroof and/or the hard-drive based navigation system. Nav systems also include the Lexus Enform information system.

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2012 Lexus CT 200h

Fuel Economy

The 2012 Lexus CT 200h is one of the most fuel-efficient luxury vehicles on the market.

The 2012 Lexus CT 200h is greener than almost any other luxury car, but if mpg numbers mean everything you might still want to go with the Prius.

Just like the Prius, the CT 200h features an exhaust-gas recovery system that helps lower emissions and improve fuel economy—and helps reduce the amount the gasoline engine runs in short-trip use.

As with most hybrids, real-world mileage varies widely (and wildly) based on conditions. If you drive the CT hard enough, you can see mileage creep down into the 20s, but we predict most people will achieve averages close to the EPA's 42 mpg city, 41 highway ratings. Over several real-world drives, we've seen results in the upper 30s, and into the mid 40s in very careful driving.

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April 21, 2015
For 2012 Lexus CT 200h

A car that fits my needs really well.

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I commute to L.A. from the High Desert a couple of times a week and put 25,000 miles a year on my car, so great gas mileage is a high priority. I had a 2010 Prius, which I was satisfied with, but I wanted a... + More »
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