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Lexus CT 200hLexus CT 200h a great opportunity missed

By Jim Bray
November 19, 2015

Lexus' entry level car would be a terrific little sports wagon if not for one thing: it isn't the least bit sporting - even, unfortunately, with the F-Sport packaged added to the mix.

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It's a real shame. I love small wagons - full disclosure, my personal vehicle is a small sports wagon - because they give you all the advantages of a sedan, but with more room to haul stuff. Other examples of the species include Audi's Avants/Allroads, and the wagon versions of sedans from Mercedes-Benz and BMW. For some reason, however, wagons don't seem to sell well here in North America; maybe it's thanks to memories of the land barges with stuck on fake wood of decades past, or just because people seem to like SUV's better - but whatever the reason, consumers here are missing out on the chance for great driving pleasure with wonderful practicality in one package deal.

Into this small market comes the CT 200h, which has been around for a few years now and has never reached its potential. The reason, as far as I'm concerned, is that it's offered only as a hybrid, with limited performance and a horrible example of the continuously variable transmissions species. Heck, I drove a new Scion IM at Canadian Car of the Year TestFest since I had my seat time in the CT and I liked that entry level wagon's CVT a lot better: it was quieter and at least pretended to be a real, shifting transmission.  

Not so here. The CVT in the CT howls like a hound from Hell when you press the "accelerator" pedal, despite the increased noise reduction stuff Lexus undoubtedly put into the car compared to the CT's  spiritual brother, the Prius. The CT is basically an upmarket Prius, and if that's what you want, the CT will probably serve you really well. It gets great fuel economy, allows you to experience your smug emissions, and sports (sorry!) Lexus' current interior theme, which is among the best I've seen - classy, luxurious and efficient.

There isn't a lot that's new for 2016, but there wasn't a lot besides the power train that needed to be changed. ¬†"For 2016, we add a second F SPORT series upgrade option to give our guests even more choice in performance and style-enhancing features," said Cyril Dimitris, Director of Lexus in Canada, in a press release announcing the latest model. "With the 2016 CT, the world's first luxury hybrid sportback proves beyond all doubt that exceptionally efficient can also be extraordinarily exhilarating."

I guess, a la Bill Clinton, it depends on what the meaning of "extraordinarily exhilarating" is.

Other than the goofy "spindle" Lexus grille (which to be fair isn't as outrageous here as it is on some other Lexi), it's a great looking car on the outside, with a low and wide profile that looks like it means business. Standard equipment includes 16 inch, 10 spoke aluminum alloy wheels, and there's a rear spoiler to help perpetuate the lie that it's a sports wagon.

Inside, the handsome cabin seats five passengers (they don't say "comfortably," however, because you probably don't want to be the third person on the back bench for very long), and it's loaded with luxury stuff, as it should be. You get a decent, premium audio system with integrated Sirius XM Satellite Radio, USB audio input, bamboo charcoal speakers, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, Bluetooth connectivity (though I could never for the life of me get it to stream my tunes; it only worked as a phone). There's also dual-zone automatic climate control, a tire pressure monitoring system, power-adjustable and heated fake leather front seats, power door locks with keyless entry, power windows with the auto up/down function on all of them, a Smart Key System with Push Button Start/Stop, power adjustable heated outside mirrors with integrated signal lights (and "puddle lamps"), and LED daytime running lamps.

All for about $31,000. Not a bad deal, in all, if you want a gussied up Prius. Especially since a loaded Prius will cost you about 34 grand.

Lexus Canada's sample was more loaded than that, however, coming as it did with the F Sport Series 1 package that brought its total tab to $37,850 sans kilos of government-mandated flesh, etc.. Still a decent price considering what you get.

The CT 200h is powered by a Lexus Hybrid Drive the company says is tailored specifically to the car, "to deliver maximum performance and efficiency." Its heart is a 1.8 litre Atkinson Cycle four cylinder engine coupled to a high-torque electric motor. Total horsepower is listed at 134, which is hardly the stuff that dreams are made of unless you're an Algore aficionado. You can operate the CT in Normal, Sport, ECO and EV modes, though EV is pretty useless unless you enjoy getting your doors blown off by pedestrians.

Sport mode is reasonably adequate, but the CVT still howls with rage when you tromp on the gas, making you howl with frustration.

For 2016, the CT 200h can be upgraded via four packages. Here's how Lexus describes them:

The Touring Package adds: unique 17" aluminum alloy wheels, aluminum scuff plates, a power moon roof, LED headlamps and fog lamps, and an additional storage compartment with a 12-volt electrical connection

The Executive Package adds a 10-speaker Lexus Display Audio System with display audio controller, a voice-activated SD Card-based navigation system with Lexus Remote Touch, a single in-dash DVD player, leather seats, a driver seat memory system linked to the exterior mirrors, auto-dimming rear view mirror with integrated compass, auto-dimming and reverse auto-tilting exterior mirrors, integrated garage door opener, a back-up camera, and rain sensing wipers

The F SPORT Series 1 package (which is what the sample unit wore) ups the ante via front and rear performance dampers, aluminum sport pedals with rubber inserts, metal-look interior trim, a three spoke steering wheel, and scuff plates.

The F SPORT Series 2 upgrade adds stuff like F SPORT leather seats, and other stuff from the other packages, such as the seat memory system, garage door opener, in-dash DVD player, and auto-dimming and reverse auto-tilting outside mirrors.

Naturally, you get an abundance of safety features, such as Vehicle Stability Control, Traction Control (with an off switch "for more direct response on closed courses" - and good luck with that), Antilock Braking System with Electronic Brake Force Distribution and Brake Assist, eight airbags, an onboard first-aid kit, anti-theft system, and more. Thankfully, the sample didn't come with all the newer stuff like lane departure and forward collision harassment, blind spot monitors (okay, I'm learning to live with these in inclement weather) and the like.

As with other Toyota hybrids, the CT 200h beeps when you shift it into reverse, kind of like those big commercial trucks do when they back up. The difference here is that the beeping only happens inside the car, which makes me wonder what the point is. I never had issues figuring out I was in reverse: the car started moving backwards!

One thing I really liked about the sample CT was that it eschewed Lexus' current penchant to inflict a touch pad or other mouse-like pointing device on the car, for guiding the cursor around the LCD screen. That system requires far too much attention, but the sample CT just had a straightforward knob by which to navigate the menus and it worked just fine without being so fiddly.

If only there were another version of the CT available one with a "real" power train, I just might love this car. And as it turns out, the company does have such a beast, a lovely 235 horsepower turbo four mated to a six speed automatic transmission. It's available right now in the NX 200t, which I reviewed here.

I have no idea what would be involved in sticking this system into the CT - or if it's even feasible - but I'd like to see Lexus offer two different CT versions the same way it does the NX. With the CT's great looks, nice handling and steering feel, and wonderful luxury touches, I think it would be a real tour de force in the "entry luxury" sedan/wagon market, something that might give cars like the Audi A3 a real run for your money.

Copyright 2015 Jim Bray

Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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