2014 Lexus CT 200h Driving Impressions

The Lexus CT was introduced as a 2011 model with much fanfare about the rigidity of the chassis, but for 2014 it gets strengthened with more spot welds, making us wonder if they missed it the first time. Also, spring rates are changed, shock absorbers improved with a new valve, and the rear stabilizer bar optimized for ride, which is excellent. The CT takes lumpy patches in stride.

Cornering is terrific. The chassis engineer, Mr. Satakata, a racer himself, worked to make the CT 200h feel spirited and secure on twisty roads, and it does. There's a double-wishbone rear suspension, low center of gravity, centralized moment of inertia (like a horizontal center of gravity), and performance dampers (first seen on the Toyota Corolla GTS), which are horizontal bars with a gas shock absorbers mounted between the front strut towers and rear frame horns.

The turning circle is a tight 34.2 feet, making city driving a breeze.

The problem with the CT's terrific handling is that it makes the car feel like a missed opportunity. It could be a fantastic answer if it weren't for the Prius powertrain. If Lexus made a CT with the gasoline-burning IS 250 engine and 6-speed gearbox, it would be a star. They do make one of those for Japan but not for the U.S.

With 98 horsepower from the 1.8-liter Atkinson Cycle gas engine and 80 hp (60 kW) from the generator, the total of 134 horsepower isn't much. Full-throttle acceleration from 0 to 60 takes 9.8 seconds, same pokey pace as the Prius. Snail-like acceleration is no fun when you're trying to get on the freeway in front of a big speeding truck.

Especially from the point of view of the chassis, the CVT, or Continuously Variable Transmission, is a letdown. It doesn't have gears like a normal automatic or manual, or even steps and paddles to shift sequentially, like some non-hybrid cars with CVTs. When you push the CT200h on twisty roads in order to enjoy the handling, the engine rpm's keep surging for the CVT to work, ruining the fun. The surge is all aural, as there is no actual surge felt in the car, but it's still annoying.

We performed a test, to answer our own questions about this alleged CVT surge. We switched on the 10-speaker premium sound system, turned the volume way up with hard rock, and floored the accelerator at 60 mph. Like magic, the perceived surging stopped, because we couldn't hear it. We watched the tach, and it kept radically jumping up and down. The car was totally smooth. This weirdness is why people have a hard time with CVTs. The CVT relationship isn't between speed and rpm, like we're used to, it's between acceleration and rpm.

We extended our test of this aspect of the CVT. Out on the open freeway, in Sport mode, the tach needle was barely 2000 rpm at 77 mph, and when we accelerated just a bit to 80 mph it leaped to 5000 rpm, with redline at 5500. We got to 82 mph and it maintained that speed at 3500 rpm.

The Lexus CT cannot compete in the fun-to-drive department with the front-wheel-drive Audi A3 turbodiesel with direct injection, which makes 140 horsepower and is rated at 30/42 mpg City/Highway. The Audi has the brilliant DSG transmission, and still costs less than the Lexus. And it too has low emissions, a past winner of Green Car of the Year, from Green Car Journal. (There's an A3 with a 1.6-liter TDI in Germany that gets more than 60 mpg.)

The CT has four driving modes: EV, Eco, Normal and Sport. Don't count on going anywhere in EV; our CT wouldn't even run the fan in the driveway in EV-only mode, let alone take us across the street from the bank to the grocery store. Lexus says the CT 200h can go for one mile at 28 mph in EV mode on a full battery charge, and we're not saying it can't; we're just saying we can't. In EV mode, battery power goes away fast.

Around town, below 25 mph, Eco mode is fine. But if you're accelerating past that, especially up a hill, the CT will shift itself into power (Sport) mode. The differences between Eco, Normal and Sport modes are not in their limit to power, but in how fast it will accelerate to that limit.

Fuel economy for the CT 200h is an EPA-estimated 43/40 mpg City/Highway or 42 mpg Combined, on Regular 87-octane gasoline. Out on the freeway at a steady 68 mph, we got 37.7 mpg; around town, driving like a little old lady, we saw 20.6 mpg. Granted, there were a lot of hills and it was cold so the heater was running.

The brakes are nice and firm on their own. There's also a Braking mode, which gets the most out of regenerative brake energy to build up the battery charge. You can feel it slow down the car when you back off, sometimes too much. In the city you can't smoothly glide up to a redlight and let your speed drop naturally. But it's great when you're driving down a curvy mountain or on a busy freeway. When you get there you'll have a full tank of battery juice.

The F Sport package isn't expensive, and it's worth it for the better looks alone. Performance-wise, it benefits from sport-tuned coil spring settings and optimized front/rear roll rigidity distribution. But the plain CT corners and rides well enough.

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