At Business Insider, the members of our Transportation team try to get some seat time in every car we check out. This is important for our Car of the Year process, so we can compare notes on vehicles that are in the running.
We share our views on most of the cars, trucks, and SUVs we sample. Usually, we come to a consensus.
Sometimes, we don’t.
BI’s Ben Zhang and I both spent some time with the Lexus CT200h, and to say that we didn’t see eye-to-eye would be an understatement. Ben genuinely disliked the car. I absolutely loved it.
Ben had good reason for his disdain. The CT200h, rolled out in 2010, is essentially a Lexus-ified Toyota Prius. Nobody will confuse the Prius with a high-performance car, and there isn’t much aggressive go in the CT200h: it managed 0-60 mph in more than 10 seconds. The CT200h also borrows the Prius’ continuously variable transmission (CVT), which Ben calls “the devil’s work.”
The dreaded CVT
Basically, a CVT eliminates multiple gears and simply varies torque depending on how hard the engine is running. Cars that have traditional automatics and of course those that use manuals or semi-automatics give you a sense of the gears shifting, or make you shift them yourself. CVTs completely disconnect you from this experience, but they serve up better fuel economy. Purists hate them, and to be honest, they can be noisy and feel crude relative to their older brothers.
The CT200h is something of an oddball in the Lexus lineup: a compact luxury hybrid hatchback wagon. However, if you like the Prius – and I very much like the Prius – then the CT is appealing. It takes everything that one might like about Toyota’s legendary hybrid and luxes it up.
This will set you back a little over $31,000, for the base CT. That’s about $6,000 more than you’d pay for the base version of the Prius. The CT we tested tipped the cost scales at almost $42,000, but we had the F Sport trim level, crammed with extras.
Another negative, from Ben’s point of view: the CT has the previous-generation Prius’ hybrid-electric drivetrain under the hood, a 1.8-liter four-cylinder coupled to Toyota’s hybrid systems, making a total of 134 horsepower and delivering fuel-economy that about 10 mph worse than the new Prius, as well as slower acceleration than the Toyota.
More dreaded CVT
As with the Prius, the compromises inherent in the hybrid drivetrain and the CVT are most abundantly on display during highway driving. Ben couldn’t handle the buzzy CVT and the sense that the CT200h was redlined at 6,000 rpm.
I’m used to this situation from driving my 2011 Prius, so for me, the CT200h offered the refinement and comfort I often find lacking in my own car.
The best thing about Prius ownership is the low cost of gassing up. You’ll enjoy the same thing with the CT, but the physical environment of the vehicle is a major improvement on the Prius. Over the course of a week’s driving, I averaged about 39 mpg, shuffling among the three drive modes: normal, eco, and sport. Like the Prius, the CT also has a EV mode that will run the car only on electricity, but you have to be moving quite slowly for it to remain active.
An amusing element of the CT is how the car’s designers and engineers have added the requisite Lexus touches – such as the controversial “spindle” grille, which here is small enough to look good rather than weird, as it does on other Lexuses – and reconfigured all the Prius stuff. My personal favorite is the seat heaters, which on my car are basic on-off buttons. On the CT, they’re pop-up dials that can vary the temperature.
Other transfers include some of the Prius’s wonky fuel-economy and drivetrain graphics, which are front-and-center on the Prius’ instrument panels but in the CT are tucked away, giving ground to traditional analog gauges.
How’s it to drive?
The Prius is more fun to drive than most people give it credit for, but the CT is actually kind of a kick. With the F Sport package, a $3,325 upgrade, you get 17-inch alloy wheels and sport-tuned four-wheel independent suspension, and to my senses what felt like crisper steering. The car has some heft to it, as well, so it feels more planted than the Prius.
Admittedly, you are never going fast. But the impression of a luxury performance wagon is present, mainly when cornering or taking a lazy turn on some winding roads.
This all drove Ben nuts, but I was fine with it. I liked the way the car looked in an “Atomic Silver” paint job, the black leather interior on our tester was elegant and comfortable, the back seat was big enough to handle two of my three kids, and although the cargo capacity isn’t great, it was adequate for suburban excursions to the grocery and hardware stores.
A Prius-luxury mashup
I even warmed up to Lexus’ infotainment system, which, with its hockey-puck toggle, doesn’t have a whole lot of fans and can be tricky to use. But just because I warmed up to it, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to see it revamped. Functionality is up-to-speed, however. There’s SiriusXM satellite radio, Bluetooth pairing, USB and AUX connections, and a reasonable hand-free voice system. I also like the little slot in the center console that enables you to prop up an iPhone.
For me, the mashup of Prius and Lexus luxury works well in the CT200h and in fact gives me what I sometimes long for: a better Prius.
For Ben, it was all a travesty, a deeply unsatisfying car. Why pay thousands extra to roll around in a reskinned Prius?
I had to agree that he made completely valid points about the CT200h’s drawbacks. But for me, the total package overcame those flaws. Mind you, many reviewers of the CT have made the same complaints that Ben did, so I’m not in the mainstream here. But if you’re looking for a Prius that has more flash, the CT200h makes a lot of sense.