2012 Lexus CT 200h Road Test

Lexus CT is the sexy city mouse to plaid country cousin Toyota Prius.

What It Is
A hot-looking Toyota Prius.
Best Thing
Fuel economy in the 40 mpg range.
Worst Thing
Engine does not match sporty looks.
Snap Judgment
2012 Lexus CT 200h is a Toyota Prius wrapped up in one heck of a good-looking package, but folks looking for a fuel efficient pocket rocket need to look elsewhere.

Hatchbacks are making a comeback the U.S. Hatchbacks for the masses include the Honda Fit and the Fiat 500. Like the look and utility of a hatch but don't want to embarrass yourself at the VIP's promotion party? Check out the Volvo C30 or the upcoming Mercedes-Benz B-Class. For shoppers prioritizing mileage over strict utility, there's the ubiquitous Toyota Prius hybrid (of course). Finally, there are the "sporty" hatches, like the Volkswagen GTI and Mazdaspeed3.

But what if you want it all -- utility, luxury, high fuel economy, and sport -- in one hatch? Then your choices narrow down to one: the Lexus CT 200h. Lexus' unique offering seems to have it all. Five-doors? Check. Luxury look and features? Check. High fuel economy? Oh, yeah, at a combined 42 mpg! Sporty? Well, that's the one thing a spec sheet can't tell us, and only a drive can verify that last requirement. So we drove a 2012 Lexus CT for a week to find out.

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What We Drove

The 2012 Lexus CT 200h is officially classified as a premium compact passenger car and currently is the only hatchback powered by a hybrid powertrain in that segment. Closest matches to the CT are the 2012 Chevrolet Volt hatchback, however, GM's marketing emphasizes the EV nature of the Volt, and targets the Nissan Leaf, not luxury brands like Lexus.

The base CT 200h starts at $29,995, which includes an $875 destination fee, not bad considering the CT's uniqueness in the luxury market. The near $30,000 gets you "NuLuxe" faux leather; power locks and windows; a sunroof; heated front seats; 10-way powered adjustable driver's seat; tech features like Bluetooth and available satellite radio; and, of course, the hybrid powertrain and its combined 42 mpg. But Lexus wants us to check out the CT's sporty cred. It took the top-of-the line CT 200h Premium and enhanced it with 17-inch alloy wheels, unique grille, spoiler, aluminum pedals, F Sport badges, and enough leather to cover the seats, steering wheel, and shift knob. Cost to look sporty? An additional $2,330.

Lexus also prides itself for its brand's technological reputation. Our CT was a moving entertainment center, with additional $1,100 worth of premium audio, auto-dimming rearview mirror, and universal transceiver. There's even an anachronistic six-disc CD changer. For $2,445 more you get navigation; a backup camera; and Lexus Enform, the automaker's voice-controlled, interactive infotainment system. Lexus finally gives the CT a shiny rear bumper applique for $76, making the grand total of $38,076 for the hybrid hatch. Eyebrow-raising? Yes, but what we found more interesting was lack of modifications like stiffer suspension, firmer steering, bigger brakes, more power, and other sporty vehicle hallmarks.

All Lexus CT hatchbacks come well-equipped with safety features, with standard front, side, knee, and side curtain airbags; Toyota's Star Safety system which includes stability control, brake assist, and traction control; and tire pressure monitor system. There's even a first aid kit. Our Lexus CT F Sport also came equipped with a backup camera system to watch for passing SUVs as their drivers chat on their smartphones.

The National Highway Safety Administration has not yet rated the 2012 Lexus CT 200h while the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the hatchback its Top Safety Pick, scoring Good in its front, side, rear, and rollover tests. Note that the Toyota Prius, which the Lexus CT is based on, received an overall five-stars from the NHTSA and is also a Top Safety Pick by the IIHS.

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The Commute

First, let's answer the question if the Lexus CT 200h is a sporty hatch: It's not. A quick glance of the driving logs quickly reveals the engine just didn't have the "oomph" expected in a sporty car. The Lexus CT 200h's continuously variable transmission smoothed out the entire driving experience, and there no manumatic controls like paddle shifters to allow the driver to hold down engine power at low revs. We know sporty hybrids exist as detailed in our review of the 2012 Ford Fusion Hybrid. Unfortunately, the CT 200h just couldn't back the "F" badge designed for Lexus' performance vehicles.

But the 2012 Lexus CT is a comfortable ride. Open the door and sink into the firm seat. Press the Stop/Start button and watch the instrument cluster light up. Our Lexus CT 200h came equipped with navigation, and we'd ooh and ahh as the screen tilted up to display our car's position. Like mainstream sibling Toyota Prius, the Lexus CT engine starts silently on battery power until you take your foot off the brake. Then the four-cylinder engine kicks in, and a press of the throttle has the Lexus CT rolling out the parking lot or from a dead stop. As expected, the Lexus CT 200h has a quiet interior, with road and wind noise on par with other luxury vehicles in this segment. Only when going full-throttle did the CT engine's coarse voice remind us it came from a Prius, and considering the lack of power, you'll hear it a lot as you stomp on the gas pedal. The Lexus CT has four selectable drive modes: Normal, Eco, EV, and Sport, which translated to street driving; cross-country cruise; parking the car; and merging into freeway traffic. Even in Sport mode, you had to gauge your speed and position in traffic to pass safely that eighteen-wheeler, or to slip into that narrow opening between cars. Note the Lexus CT instrument goes red when Sport mode is selected though power delivery remains the same.

Not that we spent that much time treating the Lexus CT 200h like a Mazdaspeed3. We quickly realized the CT's character and drove it like street and highway cruiser it really is. Our resident gearhead/technogeeks paired their smartphones/iPhones to the CT's premium audio system and relaxed to their favorite tunes as they headed home in rush hour traffic. The few of us who tried out the Lexus CT's rear row found it cozy with two adults, comfortable even in a long trip. Which was easy to do: we averaged in the low-to-mid 40 mpg in the Lexus CT 200h despite the lead feet of several staff members.

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The Grocery Run

Hatchbacks have lots of interior space compared to their coupe and sedan cousins. We put the Lexus CT 200h's EPA-estimated 14.3 cubic-feet of cargo space to good use beyond food runs as we hit a local convention and did some impromptu shopping in San Diego. In all cases, the CT's cargo space filled up faster than expected with games, books, a duffle bag, and we seriously contemplated dropping the second row to make more room. Other Automotive.com staff made similar observations, noting while the CT's cargo space is reasonably sized, it wasn't enough to hold groceries for a family of five, for example. On the other hand, fold down the rear seats, and there's enough cargo space for a couple to take a weekend trip, or even a weeklong one.

Parking the Lexus CT at the various venues was never an issue as the hatch' smallish size made it easy slip between two full-sized SUVs with enough room for passengers to get out. The CT's backup camera added to the ease when leaving the parking stall. And none of the parental figures in our group had any difficult locking their children's car seats into the Lexus CT 200h via its LATCH system.

The Weekend Fun

We said the Lexus CT 200h is unique among Lexus' lineup, and we quickly learned that "uniqueness" is an aphrodisiac to many people. One of our crew went to take the car out for the night and found himself passionately explaining its features to several people hanging around the hot hatch. One admitted to being a potential buyer, debating between the CT and a top-of-the-line 2012 Toyota Camry. As she got out of the CT's dark leather driver's seat, her eyes still gazing over the F Sport-enhanced interior, her companion smiled and said, "You know you made your choice."

A valet at the convention wouldn't stop talking about the Lexus CT's appearance, admiring its 17-inch wheels and its aluminum-plated sport pedals. A colleague came over to discuss the CT as a possible replacement for her Mini. We could go on with more stories, all centered on the CT's looks. While the hatchback may not have been as sporty to drive as its looks suggest, it connected with people just by looking good.

Those good looks, though, are backed by plenty of functionality as long as you're looking for a cruiser going down the road, not a bruiser of a sports car. As we mentioned above, cargo space in the Lexus CT is adequate enough for most weekend getaways. Technological toys abound, from the navigation system to the already mentioned premium audio system. Much of these tech toys are within easy reach of the driver, who also enjoys 10-way powered adjustable seating. Oddly, the Lexus CT's tilt/telescoping steering column is manual. We made use of the CT's easy-to-use climate controls since the weather was stereotypical California bright and sunny. Some of us did note a drop in power during those times, but a quick turn from Normal to Sport mode resolved that issue without affecting that real-world 40-plus mpg fuel economy.

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The 2012 Lexus CT 200h is eye-catching, but unless you absolutely need it to look even sportier, skip the two F Sport packages, since the driving experience is the same. The base Lexus CT 200h is perfect for those on a budget, coming chockfull of premium features like powered 10-way driver's seat, Bluetooth, and heated side mirrors. Stepping up to the Lexus CT 200h Premium adds heated front seats and sliding moonroof and makes available all the other major packages. Regardless, the driving experience in the Lexus CT 200h remains the same. Ultimately, you have to ask yourself: Is the Lexus CT 200h worth the premium over the Prius it's based on? For some people, the answer is an automatic yes, and we'll admit it's a darn fine looking hatchback. But buy with your eyes wide open; if you're expecting the CT's engine and suspension to back up its looks, you'll be disappointed.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $38,076
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 43 mpg
EPA Highway: 40 mpg
EPA Combined: 42 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 500 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Average

Notebook Quotes

"I continue to love the awesome shuttle control for the navigation system. I think it's probably the cleverest thing Toyota has done in the past 10 years. And the fuel economy is in the mid 40s, and it stays there regardless of how you drive." -Keith Buglewicz, News Director
"Engine was smooth and willing, though not very strong. Really felt like it needed to let its hair down." -Jason Davis, Associate Editor
"The exterior styling is really smooth though. I saw a couple rolling down the freeway while I was in the CT and they look good going down the road. I think Lexus gave the CT the "F" badge strictly on looks, and in this case I'd agree. Now about what's under that hood to warrant the "F" badge..." -Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor
"It's about as sport-oriented as putting racing stripes on a beluga whale or a Forrestral-class aircraft carrier. Just because the gauges turn red doesn't mean it goes any faster." -Blake Z. Rong, Associate Editor

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