Entry-level luxury is a tough market for the average automotive enthusiast. There are plenty of fairly interesting options, but we also know that the world is your car-buying oyster when you add used cars to the mix. You can make the same statement in almost any segment of the industry, but the entry-level luxury segment seems to have the toughest time capturing the dollar bills of those who understand how to navigate eBay, Craigslist, CarMax, and a host of other arenas that offer up a bevy of great deals if you know what you want.
What if you could appeal to both sides of the coin? Grab a hold of the non-enthusiast’s luxury desires and quest for better fuel economy while also appealing to the enthusiast’s need of sporty looks and above-average handling. Is that even possible in the entry-level luxury world? Lexus thinks so.
The 2011 Lexus CT 200h tries to straddle a line that typically demands you pick a side. Does it successfully appeal to buyers on both sides of the fence? Keep reading to find out.
We know what you’re thinking… there’s no way this thing could be fun to drive. It’s a gussied-up Prius wearing better sheet metal. You’re right; the four-cylinder VVT-i engine pumps out a paltry 98 horsepower and 105 pound-feet of torque. It’s paired with an 80-horsepower battery-powered motor, and both meter out power through the electronically controlled CVT. Sounds terrible, right?
The funny thing is, however, that it isn’t terrible.
There’s a knob on the center stack that allows you to put the car in Eco, Normal, or Sport mode. The first two are predictable, but it’s that third one that has us a bit surprised. When put into Sport mode, the CT 200h wakes up from its everyday hybrid slumber. More power is extracted from the battery, which means you’re quicker off the line. The CT 200h holds revs longer and higher up, while the throttle response and electronic power steering respond more quickly. The steering also feels tighter, which gives the CT 200h an almost point-and-shoot feel – something that’s downright shocking from any Lexus not wearing the LFA badge on the back.
It’s not just the engine and steering that adjust in Sport mode, either. Vehicle Stability Control and Traction Control, while not disappearing completely, take a bit of a break, and allow for more spirited driving with less flashing of the “oh-no tire-slip!” light in the dash.
The 2011 CT 200h is a compact hybrid that actually enjoys taking the twisty road.
You won’t forget, however, that you’re driving a hybrid. The brakes are your standard hybrid regenerative variety, though the fronts boast ventilated front discs. The CVT works hard to make things exciting when in Sport mode by holding “gears”, but it’s otherwise your run of the mill buzzkill. Still, we’re more than pleasantly surprised that Lexus was able to inject a healthy dose of fun into a hybrid hatch, and all it requires from you is a twist of a knob.
That Sport button happens to go nicely with the exterior of the vehicle. This is no HS 250h you’re staring at. That lifeless box on wheels looks downright immobile parked next to the CT 200h. Starting at the front, this Lexus draws your eye in with the LED daytime runners and subtly aggressive fascia. Sure, the LED lamps have become the norm for any vehicle in the premium category on up, but they still serve to enhance the exterior appeal of the CT 200h.
Moving backwards, the compact hatch showcases a roof line that briefly rises above the driver’s head before moving backwards towards the stubby rear. It’s a shape that enthusiasts should have an unnatural attraction to. The CT 200h is practically a good-looking wagon! If it were our money on the line, however, we’d spend a few aftermarket bucks to turn the 17-inch wheels into 18-inchers in order to better fill the wheel wells.
Inside the 2011 Lexus CT 200h, the world of entry-level luxury truly presents itself. It’s certainly a more lush environment than your average Ford Focus or Chevrolet Cruze, yet it’s still no Mercedes-Benz E-Class or Lexus GS 350. The steering wheel feels nice and meaty in the hands, and the controls for the audio system and Bluetooth sit right at your thumbs. The seats are surprisingly comfortable, which is another way in which the CT 200h shows that it’s most certainly not the HS 250h. There is a touch of bolstering, but the seat back is well cushioned and makes for a welcome environment on trips both short and long. We’d love to see a touch-screen navigation and infotainment unit situated right above our much-used dynamic driving knob, but we’re talking entry-level lux here. The base price of this 2011 CT 200h is $30,900. Throw in a few options such as a rear-view camera display mounted in the mirror ($550) and illuminated door sills ($299 basically thrown into the trash), and you arrive at our tester’s full price of $32,699.
Where does that put the Lexus CT 200h in comparison to the rest of the competition? It seems the best direct competitor lies with the four-ringed brand, and its A3 TDI. That German hatch starts at $30,250, and features nearly exact exterior dimensions. The CT 200h gets the edge when it comes to city fuel economy (EPA estimated 43 mpg vs the A3 TDI with 30 mpg city), but the Audi gets a 2 mpg lead out on the highway (42 mpg vs 40 mpg for the Lexus). Lexus was able to keep the curb weight closer to the 3,000-pound mark, with the CT 200h tipping the scales at 3,130 pounds. That’s a good deal less than the Audi’s 3,318, and this is no Quattro hatch we’re talking about, as the A3 TDI sends power to the front wheels only.
Speaking of power, that happens to be the Audi’s trump card in this comparison. That 2.0-liter turbodiesel sends out 140 horsepower, but it also puts down 236 pound-feet of torque at just 1,750 rpm. This power is sent to the wheels courtesy of a six-speed automatic, which, in our book, trumps a CVT any day of the week. The Audi also manages to offer more total cargo room (39 cubic-feet vs a paltry 14.3 cu-ft for the Lexus) and more passenger space (89 cu-ft vs 86 cu-ft).
The 2011 Lexus CT 200h is a unique player in the entry-level luxury market. It’s got the kind of good looks that appeal to enthusiasts, and it features a pricetag that can put non-enthusiasts into a Lexus-badged psuedo lux machine. That sport button transforms the car into a vehicle that enjoys a twisty road just as much as your average hoon, yet the normal and eco modes keep gas money safely tucked away in your wallet. Not everyone is ready to jump on the diesel train, which makes the A3 TDI an intimidating alternative to a large group of the car buying public.
What we have here is a good-looking, gas-sipping Lexus that isn’t a total snooze fest behind the wheel. Are you confused? We were too initially… but that “h” on the badge doesnt’ just stand for hybrid. Twist that large knob (stop laughing) to the right, and the “h” might just stand for hoon.
[Disclosure: Lexus flipped us the keys to this CT 200h, and the car came ready to roll with a full tank of gas]