Launched a decade ago, the CT was an uncharacteristic misstep for its maker and a failure in the market.
In the first decade of the new millennium, Lexus would have looked on with interest and a degree of envy as the German premium trio successfully marched downwards into the C-segment. Even though the Audi A3, BMW 1-Series and Mercedes-Benz A-Class(1) were not significantly (if at all) better than the best of the mainstream models in this sector, the appeal of their prestigious badges was such that buyers were happy to pay up for the kudos of having one on their driveway.
Lexus was slow to respond, but eventually produced its own competitor, the CT 200h. This was a five-door hatchback that was heavily based on the drivetrain of the highly regarded Toyota Prius. The 1997 first generation Prius had been something of an acquired taste, with its oddball looks and new-fangled and unfamiliar drivetrain, but the model really hit its stride in its 2003 second generation, an attractively styled car that quickly became the darling of those we would now call influencers, who used it to showcase their awareness of environmental concerns.
With the Prius as a starting point, Lexus should have been onto a winner, but that is not how it turned out at all, as we shall see.
Lexus apparently decided that a conventional silhouette in place of the Prius’s monobox design would be perceived as more prestigious. A concept, the LF-Ch, was unveiled at the Frankfurt motor show in September 2009. It was a striking and distinctive design, especially in the rear three-quarter view, with its muscular haunches and its shallow and heavily curved rear window flowing into a reverse-rake C-pillar. This concept certainly augured well for the production model to follow.
Unfortunately, a great deal had been lost in translation from concept to production car when the latter was revealed at the Geneva motor show in March 2010. Where the concept had looked taut and athletic, the production car looked flaccid and awkward, particularly in the same rear-three quarter view.
The concept’s wraparound rear window was gone, replaced by a fussy three-piece backlight, presumably in the interests of making the rear hatch opening simpler to engineer. The C-pillar was widened, disrupting the relationship between the side DLO and rear window. This problem was exacerbated by a really awkwardly drawn rear door shut-line that wandered up the rear quarter panel before meeting the door window frame in a seemingly random manner.
In side profile, the rear door glass looked much too short, and the C-pillar looked too wide and positioned too far forward, as though the car had been crudely extended rearward late in the design process. The measurements confounded this impression, however. The production car’s wheelbase was the same as that of the concept at 2,600mm (102¼”) and overall length was just 50mm (2”) longer at 4,350mm (171¼”).
Upon further examination, it becomes apparent that it was mainly the repositioning forward of the C-pillar that ruined the proportions and stance of the production car, a great disappointment after the good looking concept.
Even if the car, carrying the CT 200h name in production, was a disappointment to look at, then its Prius-derived drivetrain should have made it a pleasant experience for driver and passengers. Again, we were to be disappointed. The CT 200h proved to be nowhere near as accomplished in dynamic terms as its progenitor.
The series-parallel hybrid drivetrain comprised a 1.8 litre petrol engine producing 98bhp (73kW) and an 80bhp (60kW) synchronous electric motor driving the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission. The nickel-metal hydrid (NiMH) batteries had a total energy capacity of 1.3kWh. The CT 200h featured independent suspension, with MacPherson struts at the front and double wishbones at the rear. The four switchable driving modes were: Normal, Sport, Eco and EV, with the latter providing electric motor power only, which was good for a maximum range of less than 2 miles (3km).
Autocar magazine’s verdict was typical of the lukewarm reviews the new CT 200h received. The petrol-electric hybrid powertrain produced a combined maximum of 134bhp (100kW) which was barely adequate for a premium car weighing 1,450kg. Lexus claimed a 0 to 62mph (100km/h) time of 10.3 seconds, but the magazine’s average measured time to 60mph (97km/h) was 11.1 seconds. Moreover, in order to achieve that, the powertrain was noisy and strained, undermining its otherwise commendable refinement at steady speeds.
According to the reviewer, “The biggest problem with the car’s performance isn’t a shortage of outright power. It’s more that it’s delivered in a way that makes you feel only in vague control of either engine, and that makes you work doubly hard to gain and maintain speed.” The sensation of a lack of control was exacerbated by the CVT.
As one would expect from Lexus, the quality of materials and finish in the interior was “hugely impressive. The leathers are tactile and beautifully finished, the plastics soft and substantial”. The driver interface was, however, “spoilt by Lexus’s Remote Touch multi-function controller. It’s supposed to operate like a computer mouse, but is fiddly to use and requires far too many commands to perform even the simplest of functions. BMW’s iDrive is a million times easier to use”.
The reviewer’s other major criticism of the CT 200h was of an “over-firm, unsettled ride that’s at odds with the general nature of the car”. They went on to conclude that “in its desire to make the CT200h sporty, it has created something of a mishmash – a car that handles well, but without the power to make the most of it. If Lexus’s objective was to make the CT200h drive differently from a Prius, it has succeeded, but it has failed to produce a car with a coherent or harmonious driving experience.” Overall, Autocar rated the CT 200h an unimpressive three stars (out of five) which left it trailing in the wake of its premium compact competitors.
In a later review, What Car magazine was even more harsh in its verdict. Citing similar issues, it awarded the CT 200h just two stars and described it in summary as “unrefined, uncomfortable and outdated”.
There were no fundamental updates during the car’s life, just a facelift in 2014 which introduced Lexus’s Spindle grille, and an even more minor one in 2017 which is recognisable (just) by different rear light units. This upgrade included a larger 10.3″ infotainment touchscreen in all but the base-specification model.
The CT 200h was aimed primarily at Europe but was also sold in North America. Sales were steady at low levels, but never really took off in either market, as can be seen in the table below:
|Year:||Europe: (2)||N. America: (3)|
The CT 200h was phased out in North America at the end of 2017 because of weak sales, and in Europe in late 2020 for the same reason. It was a poorly conceived and executed car that deserved to fail, and a blot on Lexus’s copybook that the automaker will undoubtedly be keen to forget.
Author’s Note: I was sufficiently exercised by the awkwardness of the CT 200h’s design to see if it could have been executed more pleasingly while operating within the constraints of the production model. A piece containing my redesign proposals will follow shortly.
(1) The first and second-generation A-Class at least had the distinction of its highly space-efficient packaging to commend them, offering C-segment accommodation within a smaller overall footprint.
(2) From www.carsalesbase.com
(3) From www.goodcarbadcar.net