Test Drive: 2012 Lexus CT200h

“…And this is cool….”

Says my guide as I step out of the elevator and see what looks like somebody had gotten a little carried away with doing burnouts.

Are those skid marks? ….wait no. Its just a big painted Lexus symbol…

I’m at the top level of OpenRoad Lexus in Richmond, and its up here where they store all the Lexii that are not show cars. Cars are transported up and down to this top deck via an elevator big enough to fit a large car.

This relatively new Lexus dealership has now been transformed from a lot with a bunch of cars on it – to a building which houses show rooms, a car elevator, a lounge, and a bunch of magazines which are supposed to tell you all about the lifestyle that you want. Hmm.

This is all part of Lexus’ new marketing strategy. It is no longer good enough to sell a car on quality, reliability, and something else that is cliche Lexus, but you now need to sell a “lifestyle” as well.

We travel down to the showroom on the second floor where I see a rare Lexus LF-A. But it’s not this car that catches my eye, but rather a fully restored Toyota 2000GT. What gorgeous lines.

Front quarter view. Lovely. Classic long bonnet and hunched rear haunches tell you that it is a front engined, rear wheel drive car. Love it.

Rear view of the Toyota 2000GT. Hints of E-Type Jag in there. You can see the Lexus LF-A looking on jealously in the background as its much older predecessor is getting all the attention…

“Can I drive this?”

“No.”

I point to the LF-A.

“Can I drive this?”

“No.”

We make our way downstairs where I spot a Lexus IS-F through the window.

“Can I drive that?”

“No.”

Wheels of the IS-F were designed to look like Katana blades. Beautiful….and not what I’ll be driving today.

Is this all a show? Did I come here to just get a cup of cappuccino from their coffee bar? Or to look at cars that I can’t drive?

I’m starting to get desparate. Looking around, I am temporarily distracted by the good-looking female receptionists before I point out a Lexus CT200h F-sport.

“No.”

I’m lead outside where I see this – a 2012 Lexus CT200h. You know, the commercial where a guy takes his date/girlfriend/wife to a masquerade party in a CT200h and brings home a different girl by accident. Except the problem with this commercial is I can hardly remember what it was about except that it seemed to be about swingers.

No matter, I won’t judge a car by the commercial it was featured in. I am a professional – I will drive anything.

In case you think it looks too much like the other Lexus’ – the license plate is there to remind you.

The car looks…kinda like all the other Lexus’ mashed together. The rear tail lights seem to have been grafted from a Lexus IS, the roofline looks to be from a RX-SUV, the front looks the same as a GS (Yes I know this came before the GS, but still).

Is that the new GS? Oh wait the license plate tells you what the car is in case you can’t tell by the looks…

I get the whole idea around “the family face” (e.g. Audi), but do they really have to make all features of the car look so similar? Despite being a bit of a “Frankenstein” of features from other Lexus cars, it doesn’t look bad. The sportback/hatch is a nice intro to the premium market; I just wish it could have been a bit more original.

So what is the CT200h? It is a posh-ish hatch that can drive multiple people around in style and comfort – Sounds like an Audi A3. The main difference here is that unlike the A3 which uses a turbocharged 2 litre engine, Lexus mates an electric motor to its long used 1.8L engine to boost its power…like a Formula 1 car. Kinda.

In addition to boosting power if needed, the electric motor can be used in “electric only” mode to save fuel and take advantage of the motor’s maximum torque from zero revs. This should give it some good off-the-line starts. Eventually, the battery powering the motor will become depleted and regenerative braking and the gasoline engine internally kicks in to help recharge the battery. It’s a neat trick, and one which Toyota/Lexus has been using since the very first Prius came out in 1997.

Just making sure you know….

Getting in the car, the interior has some good-quality feeling leather, and the multi function steering wheel seems to be a decent fit and finish and comfortable to grab. The seats are very comfortable. So far so good, and pretty standard for Lexus I would say.

Nice looking interior. Everything is well laid out and fairly conventional…

A joystick-ish thing controls the interface on the interface screen. No problems there.

Lexus’ answer to idrive (the interface on the BMW system).

A thin-film-transistor (TFT) LCD screen replaces more conventional analog dials, and brightly displays speedometer, gasoline levels, and the “Eco mode” which tells you how efficiently you are driving. A dial on the center console allows to switch between a few different driving modes – normal, Eco, EV, and Sport.

Normal mode just uses standard programming to make the car feel sedate and comfortable, while blending power from the electric motor. Eco mode reduces throttle response and optimizes the aircon to make the car more economical by 10-15%. Apparently.

TFT screens look nice. Gauge on the left tells you when you are driving like an idiot.

In sport mode, the Eco gauge on the left of the TFT screen morphs into a tachometer and the gauges turn red to show you the car is developing anger issues and needs to see a therapist right away. The car also adjusts the electric steering for better response, improves throttle response, and relaxes the vehicle stability and traction control programs.

There is also the EV mode which allows you to drive the CT as an electric car only up to 2 km (or whenever the battery runs out of juice) at speeds up to 50km/h.

Personally, this all getting a bit boring.

The question that I care about is – how does it drive?

I’ve been told that this Lexus is fun to drive, and without having driven it at this point I’m not convinced. Here’s why:

1. The 1.8L engine is the same one used on the Prius.

2. The chassis is the same as a Toyota Corolla/Matrix.

Not exactly mind blowing spec for sporty driving.

…and somewhat predictably it sort of feels like a slightly more tightly sprung hybrid corolla, which I’m sure is hardly a headline that gets your pulse racing.

The hybrid electric motor makes for strange starts as you turn the car on expecting to hear the engine fire up only to be met with….well nothing.

The electric steering feels a bit artificial in both weight and feel. The acceleration is adequate with the help of the electric motor and the transitions are smooth. I can feel a mild difference in throttle response in sport mode but it’s hardly noticeable. The suspension is firm on the straight but strangely the car still plows and feels a bit like…well a Corolla with stiffer suspension.

By the time I got back to my own car, I struggled to remember what the rest of the driving experience was like. I guess that just about sums it up.

And this is where the CT200h falls down relative to the Audi A3. Audi took a very good car (the Golf GTI), gave it a different suit, and slapped the company face on it – underneath it still is the very good Golf GTI. Lexus however, took a mediocre Corolla as a base, slapped some hybrid components and a “L” badge on it to make the CT200h. Further proving that it is hard to make something brilliant out of something that isn’t.

For $30k however, this is a good entry to the Lexus brand and a more economical alternative to the Audi A3. It has nice fit and finish, but this definitely is not a driver’s car.

I guess in that sense, the commercial about accidentally bringing home the wrong girl is a perfect simile for this car: Although bringing home the wrong girl from a masquerade party is exciting at first, you soon realize that this excitement is let down by the sobering fact that she has the personality of a rubber mallet underneath and that she was holding her gut in with a corset.

2 Comments Add Yours

  1. Patsan

    Jonathan, may be you would find the Lexus CT a gas saver, still worth some bucks after years when we get older. However you are still young, drive some exciting cars now.
    Patsan

    Reply
    • Jon

      Haha I’m working on it Patsan.

      Stay tuned – I have some stuff in the works…

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