2016 Lexus CT 200h F Sport Special Edition
No wonder sales have never measured up to the segment leaders, the CT less popular than most of its premium entry peers. Leading the list is Audi’s conventional A3 sedan and A3 Sportback e-tron hybrid duo with 35,984 deliveries last year, the latter probably closest to the CT in size, body style and powertrain, albeit the German brand is only relying on the five-door model for laying down a positive eco footprint, not sales. Mercedes’ long and lean CLA was second, a four-door coupe/sport sedan that found 29,643 buyers in 2015, the brand’s upright B-Class wagon/MPV merely good for 1,906 sales, making it the entry-level laughing stock. Acura’s ILX, a slightly larger compact sedan based on the Honda Civic, found 18,531 new owners last year and is therefore third most popular, which leaves the CT 200h with 14,657 buyers and BMW 2 Series two-door coupe and convertible with just 13,020 new owners. While these Bimmers are no doubt more profitable for the German brand, BMW had better wake up and smell the small car coffee as a four-door model is desperately needed to make the blue and white roundel more attractive to price sensitive entry-level buyers (BMW sells its i3 plug-in EV into this segment too, but it’s priced quite a bit higher, although sales are still considerable with 11,024 down the electric avenue last year).
With respect to CT 200h sales, we need to take into consideration that the model is now moving into its sixth year of production and third year since its mid-cycle refresh, its current sales numbers the lowest in any of its five available years other than its first in 2011, and a few thousand down from what they were last year and in 2012, which is normal for an older model. Still, as comparatively nominal as CT numbers might look it’s critical to keep in mind that Lexus sold 100 percent more subcompact/entry cars than Cadillac, Infiniti, Jaguar or Volvo, none of which offer anything in the low $30k region unless you discount the heck out of their respective ATS, Q50, XE and S60. In other words, Lexus is in the game, and they also deserve our respect for being one of the early adopters in this class.
This entry category is hardly as important to a luxury brand’s bottom line as the larger and more expensive D-segment compact car class, or even stronger compact and mid-size crossover SUV segments, but it’s critical for luring first-time new luxury buyers into showrooms and then afterwards graduating them upward into more profitable models. To be clear the CT isn’t a bad car at all, in fact it’s very good. It’s simply trying to play its sweet sounding fiddle in a distorted guitar layered grunge band (or a Benny Goodman style clarinet solo in one of Bieber’s new dance tracks, if that’s more to your liking). In other words it’s a classic square peg in a round hole situation.
Square isn’t fair, as the CT is certainly more multifaceted than that. It starts out with the most unique grille in the luxury class, Lexus’ now trademark spindle shaped nose having been updated for model year 2014 along with the rest of the mid-cycle refresh just mentioned. Therefore it was carryover last year and other than some package reshuffling is the same car this year. The car in front of you is the result of the model tweaks, it being the new $36,500 F Sport Special Edition, a late addition for the 2016 model year.
First off, F Sport trim includes a more pronounced black mesh grille and a bolder lower fascia, unique 17-inch F Sport alloys with blackened center cap detailing, and a larger rear spoiler with aerodynamic cutouts, plus performance and convenience enhancements that include sport-tuned front and rear dampers, aluminum sport pedals with rubber inserts, a three-spoke F Sport perforated leather-wrapped steering wheel, metal-look interior trim, a black roofliner, and black NuLuxe leatherette upholstery, whereas the cabin gets a two-tone black and crimson theme when upgrading to the Special Edition, plus glossy black wheels, side mirror caps, door handles, and tail lamp surrounds. It all comes wrapped up in exclusive Atomic Silver exterior paint plus a black painted roof, the latter initially leading me to believe a panoramic sunroof lay beneath and therefore causing some disappointment at learning it was merely a mirage.
It did include a powered moonroof, but merely a regular sized one, while other standard and optional features included auto on/off LED projector headlamps, LED daytime running lamps, LED fog lights, heatable powered side mirrors with integrated turn signals and puddle lamps, proximity access with pushbutton ignition, aluminum scuff plates, bright and colorful electroluminescent primary gauges, a TFT multi-information display, a multifunction steering wheel, Drive Mode Select, dual-zone auto HVAC, heatable front seats, an eight-way powered driver’s seat and four-way powered front passenger’s seat, satellite radio, Bluetooth streaming audio, and numerous active and passive safety features.
It’s certainly a car that pampers, and as long as you fully understand what you’re getting into it’ll leave you smiling. What do I mean? The CT’s low-slung five-door liftback styling is sporty and therefore might lead a person to believe that it’ll tear up the tarmac, but make no bones about it, this little luxe machine is little more than a Toyota Prius in drag. This is a great thing if you’re more about saving a buck at the pump and doing “the right thing” for mother nature, but its straight-line performance isn’t exactly going to light a fire under your seat or scare one of its aforementioned competitors away from the starting line.
First off the performance positives, these being 43 mpg city, 40 highway and 42 combined, enough to make the stingy Scrooge in all of us crack a sly smile. Such are Toyota Prius numbers, albeit not the all-new 2016 Prius that achieves an improved 54 mpg city, 50 highway and 52 combined. At first glance it would appear that the new Prius’ numbers are a direct result of 13 fewer horsepower, but according to the Japanese automaker it has more to do with a revision in the way its engineers rate power unit output. If we are to believe this, it’s likely the CT’s real output is closer to the current Prius’ 121 horsepower, but either way it feels quicker than the specs suggest, especially on the highway where it delivers ample passing performance.
Lexus doesn’t bother with paddle shifters for its CVT or a manual mode via its Prius-like PRNDB shifter, but rather if you want to go faster simply give a clockwise twist the metallic rotating knob positioned right beside that shifter. This engages a Sport mode similar to the “Power” mode in the Prius, releasing a fuel economy be damned surge of electrical energy along with all the thrust the little 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle four can muster. Its torque-rich drivetrain actually moves forward with enthusiasm and as noted is plenty enjoyable on the highway, but with a 9.8-second saunter to 60 you’re not going to embarrass CLA 45 AMG buyers, let alone a CLA 250 or even a B-Class owner, or for that matter anyone driving anything else in this segment, truly the CT is more about comfort than speed.
To that end the little Lexus rides and handles very well, the CT’s engineers finding a nice balance between sport and comfort that was only offset slightly by the non-stock winter rubber underneath. It stuck to its lane when pushed around corners nonetheless, offered superb maneuverability in the city, provided excellent visibility no matter where I was driving, and truthfully put down as much power as I ever “needed” throughout my test week. The fact is that most of the time I was held up in heavy commuter traffic, which is almost always the case in my town, so I might as well be saving on fuel.
This is where EV mode comes into play, the CT swapping back and forth between a conventional internal combustion/electric combination and full electric motive power as it sees fit in order to optimize fuel economy, at least when set to Eco mode. You can press an EV mode button to the left of the rotating Drive Mode Select controller, and it’ll keep the car silent right up until about 25 mph as long as you’re not too hard on the throttle, at which point the gasoline-fed portion of the powertrain cuts in, but take note that it’ll only go into EV mode then the battery is amply charged and that only happens via brake regeneration and coasting. This said an EV mode that allowed the car to keep up with traffic would be even more useful, but this would require a much heftier battery and possibly a plug-in port, and that’s not the mission of this Lexus.
Such slow moving meant that I had time to enjoy the CT’s many luxuries and play with its electronics, its cabin refinements including an almost fully soft-touch dash top that wraps right overtop the instrument panel ahead of the front passenger and around the center vents, while a nice padded contrast-stitched leatherette primary gauge hood dresses up the space ahead of the driver. Some appreciated detailing includes padded leatherette knee protectors on each side of the center console that are also contrast-stitched, Lexus going further than most competitors when it comes to pampering front occupants.
Toyota’s usual circular engine start-stop button with “POWER” lettering is easily accessed on the upper right, this being a carryover item from the old Prius, whereas an attractive set of analog and digital primary gauges incorporate a tachometer when Sport mode is engaged and a TFT multi-information display showing hybrid functions when in Normal and Eco modes, plus gear selector info to the left, a large speedometer at center, a fuel gauge and monochromatic trip computer to the right, and other backlit readouts for Sport mode, etcetera elsewhere around the cluster.
As noted earlier, Sport, Eco, and Normal modes are accessible via a large rotating dial on the sloping center stack, plus EV and traction control-off buttons. I find this setup ultra-handy because I like to swap between various modes as I drive, making the most of a given vehicle’s performance when needed and optimizing fuel economy the rest of the time.
Positioned close by, a set of two rotating seat heater knobs offer near infinite temperature settings, while I must say I like the rotating dial style infotainment controller (RTI) used in this car much more than the older joystick design recently retested in the GS and RX models, as it’s much simpler and a lot easier to apply accurately. The joystick style RTI moves the cursor around the screen too quickly, but there’s no problem using this one. I’d prefer the newer touch pad even more, but I could understand why some might appreciate this simpler setup more than either of Lexus’ more upscale infotainment controllers.
This RTI connects through to a fairly well featured infotainment system housed in a fixed tablet-style display atop the dash, and while the graphics are excellent I found it a bit small. The reverse camera provided good rearward vision, whereas this model’s 10-speaker audio was quite good with deep resonant bass tones and nice bright highs, but it was no Mark Levinson surround sound system. Lexus includes a CD player for those who appreciate higher quality audio recordings, plus the stereo also boasts weighty rotating knobs for power and volume to the left plus tune and scroll to the right. They’re nicely detailed with chrome rings around their perimeters, but these controls weren’t as high end as the new RX 450h’s genuine metal knobs. This is to be expected in the CT’s entry-level class, while more importantly they were well damped with zero side-to-side wiggle, as was the rest of the switchgear in the cabin. This includes the dual-zone auto HVAC interface that’s long, narrow and modern looking, with a large digital display.
To brighten up the CT’s interior Lexus uses classic satin-silver surfacing on the steering wheel’s lower spoke and across the dash, while engine-turned metallic inlays finish off the instrument panel ahead of the front passenger. The seats are covered in Lexus’ NuLuxe leatherette, the aforementioned crimson and black seats matching the door panels that get the same red insert and stitching motif. It’s a racy look that certainly spices up the CT’s interior design, living up to the outward expectations brought about by this Special Edition’s sportier glossy black exterior bits.
On a more practical note, the rear passenger area is amply large with decent legroom, and while the seats are very comfortable with excellent lower back support, Lexus doesn’t include a center armrest and therefore no dual cupholders are integrated within. Likewise there were no rear seat heaters and none are available, but the seatbacks fold 60/40 to provide even more cargo space under the liftback than its already accommodating 14.3 cubic feet, the CT’s maximum being a sizable 34.1 cubic feet.
At the end of my test week I was fonder of the CT 200h than I was stepping in, something that seems to happen each and every time I drive this little car. It’s good looking, fun enough to drive, great on gas, suitably luxurious, wonderfully comfortable, impressively reliable and plenty practical, while its base window sticker of $31,250 and already noted mid-$30k as-tested price should certainly be affordable to those stepping up into the premium class. I’m the first to say the CT isn’t for everyone, but for those wanting something a bit different, let alone a car as green as this segment gets this side of an all-electric BMW i3, the CT 200h is well worth considering.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Trevor Hofmann and Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press