WEST COAST EDITOR MARK VAUGHN: I got into this 2014 Lexus CT 200h after about a month of full-size pickups and SUVs, so it immediately felt right-sized. Suddenly, the vehicle I was commandeering could fit into driveways, parking structures and strip mall parking spots with ease. I no longer had to watch all four corners to avoid causing massive collateral damage to my environment.
Yet it was practical enough to carry five people and 14.3 cubic feet of cargo behind them. Fold down the seats and it swallowed up a surfboard -- albeit a short board. I didn't try cramming a bicycle back there and I don't think you could get away with that, unless it's one of those foldable bikes.
So I liked the size of this thing.
I did take a longish trip -- about 300 miles or so -- with five people total and I can tell you the three in the back were not very happy. While you can technically fit them in there, and while there are seat belts and seats for all three, none of them will like you very much for putting them there. It's snug.
As for the act of driving, well, this thing is every bit as exciting as … a Toyota Prius. It shares most mechanical and platform parts with the Prius. While there are a couple attempts to make it sportier, like a sport-tuned suspension and a driver-selectable setting that gives you better steering and throttle response, who are we kidding? This thing feels every ounce the Prius it is beneath its somewhat more stylish skin. Whatever forward inclination the hybrid drivetrain might have offered, it is immediately diluted, watered down and hosed off by the awful CVT transmission. The 1.8-liter gasoline four combines with two electric motor generators for a total system power of 134 hp. Considering that the beast weighs a relatively light 3,196 pounds, you'd think that this could get out of its own way. But you'd be wrong. Using every trick in the book I got a 0-60 run of 9.3 seconds. Lexus claims 9.8. I must've won on a hole shot.
The trouble is not the slowness, it's the CVT. When you floor the throttle the powertrain wails enthusiastically and … nothing happens. The CVT is busy being Dean Wormer, assuring that there is “…no fun of any kind.” That is too bad because with a power to weight ratio of… OK, I just checked: power to weight, or more accurately, weight to power is a miserable, sputtering 24:1. OK, that's awful. A Ford Focus ST or Mazda Mazdaspeed 3 are, roughly speaking, about 800 times more fun to drive and cost one fourth as much while offering more utility.
Of course, they get half the gas mileage, and fuel efficiency is one of the main draws of this luxury hatchback. The EPA rates the Lexus CT200h at 43 city/40 highway/42 combined. I myself went through two measured tanks and got 40.1 and 41.3 mpg despite driving with some urgency the whole time. The Ford and the Mazda get half that. If you want better mileage and a lower sticker price and don't care about Lexus prestige, you can get a 51-mpg Prius for $25K, same sticker price as the Ford and the Mazda.
However, we are not taking into consideration the Lexus prestige. What is that worth? Approximately $8,000. I don't understand that part at all. This is a drive review so I get to inject my own personal opinion instead of presenting the car through the eyeballs of the presumptive buyer and I ask, “Who are car buyers trying to impress?” Go forth and do good deeds and impress people that way. Be kind, be honest, be trustworthy, impress them with that. But don't try and impress people by spending $8,000 more than necessary to buy a fancy car. But that's just my opinion, after having driven and tested about 4,000 cars.
ASSOCIATE WEST COAST EDITOR BLAKE Z. RONG: The 2014 Lexus CT 200h is a “stumpy station wagon,” as I described it to a friend I was picking up at the airport, hoping that the Lexus badge would be large enough for detection between its rotund and jowly fenders. If the traditional wagon shape implies functional and unsporty motoring, then the CT 200h delivers turgidity in spades; more importantly, it imparts sluggishness to an extent that it almost feels dangerous. The throttle is absurdly nonresponsive; heavy and languid, it seems to loathe this whole forward momentum business that it's in charge of. Pull from a stoplight (at a pace to match traffic, that is -- not like we're squaring off against John Force) and the gasoline engine grumbles and whines noisily like a petulant child. It's extremely difficult to move forward without waking the gasoline engine at speeds greater than a parade float's. Meanwhile, the brakes feel like squishing a milk carton.
Every application of either pedal, by the way, comes with its own musical accompaniment of faint electronic whirring, beeping, and coughing, which sounds whiz-bang futuristic for the first five minutes. But for the next 20 and onward, the future sounds an awful lot like Terminator with tuberculosis.
The only distinguishing difference between eco mode and normal mode is a little light on the dash that says “Eco Mode.” (Electric-only mode is haughty and temperamental, switching off at the slightest evocation of speed.) Acceleration is improved in sport, which relies heavily on the gasoline engine, but if you're driving an eco-friendly car, doesn't it defeat the purpose to leave it in sport just to keep up with traffic?
The CT's steering is great -- weighty and accurate across all modes, it's the best part of the CT 200h experience, and sport mode accentuates the positive here. The leather-lined wheel feels supple underhand, as is the rest of the interior: materials are quality and the seats are supportive, and there's plenty of headroom throughout. The reasoning is, if you're going to spend a lot of time moving slowly, you might as well move slowly in someplace nice.
But the doors are sculpted in a concave shape that slides your elbow off. And the dashboard is a mess, its functions requiring more examination than a GMAT prep course: controls are collectivized in square boxes and then stacked like a losing Tetris game. The drive selector knob is inexplicably domineering, while the shifter is tucked away embarrassingly in a corner -- its chrome handle jutting outward from the dash, like an assassin's dagger. Are people changing drive modes that often? They might need to if they need a modicum of acceleration.
OK, so I returned decent mileage around Los Angeles, around 40 mpg. But I would have preferred to do so in a car that didn't try so hard at being un-car-like, a car that wasn't seemingly baffled at the physics of motion, a car that wouldn't shut it with the electronic squealing. (Put it in reverse and the car beeps incessantly, like a truck -- as if the mere concept of reverse might confound user-operators.) There are better city cars that also return decent gas mileage and have quicker reflexes. Some of them might even be wagons.
2014 Lexus CT 200h
Base Price: $32,960
As-Tested Price: $37,889
Drivetrain: 1.8-liter I4 hybrid; FWD, continuously variable transmission
Output: 98 hp @ 5,200 rpm (134 hp net system output), 105 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
Curb Weight: 3,196 lb
Fuel Economy (EPA City/Highway/Combined): 43/40/42 mpg
AW Observed Fuel Economy: 40.7 mpg
Options: Navigation package including navigation system with high-resolution multimedia display, remote touch controller, Lexus Enform with destination assist, Lexus Enform App Suite, advanced voice command system, Bluetooth, HD radio, auto-dimming rearview mirror, four-way power front passenger's seat, heated front seats, all-weather floor mats, preferred accessory package including trunk mat, cargo net, wheel locks, rear bumper appliqué, HomeLink universal transceiver ($4,929)
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