Lexus first launched the CT for the 2011 model year, and for 2014, the little hatch has been given a makeover, now proudly wearing the company's new spindle grille, for better or worse. When we reviewed the CT after its launch, executive editor Chris Paukert called it "handsome, well screwed together," and "one of Toyota's boldest offerings in years." That may have been true, but after a slight makeover and some fresh new F Sport duds, I'm wondering if the CT proposition isn't looking a little more unfortunate than before.
- Despite the fact that I like the CT's shape, that new gaping maw up front really kills it for me, especially with those aluminum bits of lipstick. The rest of the car is relatively clean, with a subtly redesigned rear end that incorporates a larger roof spoiler here on the F Sport model. One particularly handsome part of the CT F Sport package are the dark-finished, 17-inch alloy wheels. But from some angles, they still look an inch too small.
- Nothing has changed underhood, where the CT 200h still employs a 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder engine matched with a 60-kilowatt electric motor. Together, this system puts out a total of 134 horsepower and 105 pound-feet of torque – pretty puny numbers, considering this car's mission as a sort of sporty hybrid, not to mention its 3,130-pound curb weight.
- Off the line, there's nothing to write home about, Lexus estimating a 0-60 time of just under 10 seconds. Getting there isn't terribly pleasant, either, with rather vague throttle response and a wheezy, unpleasant noise coming from that four-cylinder mill. The electronic continuously variable transmission keeps the powerplant on boil (as much as it can, anyway), but this car is still really slow, even with the drive mode selector set to Sport.
- Once you're up and moving, the CT doesn't do a lot to inspire driver enthusiasm – at least, none fitting of all that flashy F Sport kit. The steering is decent enough, though still rather vague. There's a fair amount of body roll in corners. The brakes are particularly touchy, as are most hybrid regenerative energy units. Really, it just isn't great to drive unless you're milling around town at low speed. On the highway, the engine drones, while the CVT does its best to keep the engine in its weak powerband, and while off-the-line acceleration is slow, kicking the throttle down to pass at speed is perhaps worse.
- I'd like to say that all of this driveline stuff is for the sake of bang-up fuel economy, but that isn't totally true. According to the EPA, the CT 200h should achieve 43 miles per gallon on the highway and 40 mpg in the city – respectable stuff, sure. But consider just how much better diesel-powered offerings like a Volkswagen Golf or Jetta are to drive, and then realize that they'll hit the same highway fuel economy numbers (or higher) for less money, and the Lexus starts to make less sense, though admittedly comparing hybrids to diesels is a bit apples-to-oranges. During my week of driving, I only managed 38 mpg.
- Functionally, though, the CT has a lot to offer. Like I said, I like the hatchback shape, and the ability to quickly flip down those rear seats to carry larger items. Even beyond that, the interior is a pretty nice place to be, with comfortable, supportive seats, nice materials throughout, and the usual smattering of onboard technology, including Lexus' infotainment system controlled by the mouse-like Remote Touch interface on the center console. What's more, the interior is relatively quiet, though still letting in a fair amount of wind and engine noise. The rear seats aren't too cramped, either.
- Really, though, the F Sport nonsense is what kills the CT 200h for me. It adds nothing in the way of actual sportiness, and its aesthetics ruins what can be a handsome little hatch – at least, what was a handsome hatch before that spindle grille overpowered everything. Plus, it adds to the bottom line – a base CT will run you just over $32,000, or about as much as a loaded Prius. But check the F Sport option and you'll get this car to nearly $40,000. That's a fair bit of coin.
- Of course, that money buys you a fancy 'L' badge, a more premium dealer experience, and a functional hatch that drives a bit better than the stalwart Toyota. But to my eyes, there are two schools of thought here: If you want a Prius, just buy a Prius. And if you want a more under-the-radar fuel-sipper, why not try one of the Volkswagen TDI offerings? Assuming diesel is your thing, of course. (It should be.) Or heck, put that money toward a plug-in Ford Fusion Energi – a car that offers more space, better dynamics, and a nifty plug in front to really impress your green friends. The Honda Accord Hybrid appears to be a mighty fine alternative, too.
- Really, when the CT 200h launched, I thought it was pretty cool – it looked good, drove well enough, and like Paukert said, was one of Toyota's more interesting vehicles. But today, this refreshed F Sport model doesn't really make a whole lot of sense to me. It isn't particularly good at any one thing – it's a fine hatchback, and a comfortable Lexus, but it's not a very good car to drive, and in my experience, it struggles to hit its EPA fuel economy estimates. With a growing crop of eco-minded vehicles in the sub-$40,000 segment, there are plenty of cars that make more sense than this quirky little Lexus.