Minor changes may not make the 2013 CT 200h feel like an "all-new" model, but it remains one of the most charming hybrids on the market.
A luxury hybrid isn't an easy sell. A luxury hybrid with sporty intensions is an even harder one. Yet ever since Lexus' compact CT 200h hatchback debuted a few years ago, it has impressed by exuding cool and still delivering results at the pump.
The 2013 edition gets a few minor changes, most notably a new schnoz that takes on the spindle design of the new GS, ES and even the RX SUV. There's also a new F Sport version, which I tested for this review.
The CT 200h looks a lot faster than it is; I wouldn't call acceleration the car's strong suit. Other editors pointed to sluggish off-the-line speed, an uncivilized continuously variable automatic transmission and unresponsive throttle.
Hit a road with even the slightest curvature, though, and you realize why the CT 200h is so appealing. The little hatch flings around curves with a light-footed nimbleness reserved for small roadsters, not front-wheel-drive hatchbacks. In fact, its turning radius is even smaller than the standard Mini Cooper hardtop.
Three drive modes -- Eco, Normal and Sport -- allow for some adjustments. Indeed, when set in Sport, the steering tightens and the CVT revs slightly stronger. Eco dampens the accelerator more than any other setting, making the CT slow for the sake of better mileage.
And what of mileage? Rated 43/40/42 mpg city/highway/combined, the CT falls in the middle of modern hybrids, but it holds a unique space in the luxury market. There are no 50 mpg hybrids like the Toyota Prius from luxury brands. Acura's new ILX Hybrid sedan has EPA numbers of 39/38/38 mpg. A gas-powered automatic Mini Cooper, in comparison, rates 28/36/31 mpg.
Driving aggressively around town with the kids over a weekend, and on a few 45-mile round-trip commutes, the trip computer read an impressive 39 mpg almost the entire time, dipping below that figure mostly in suburbia. The weather was in the low 30s most of the time, which can lower mileage in any vehicle type but especially hybrids.
The outside may have gotten a few upgrades, but inside remains the same as the last CT I tested a few years ago. It's a nice interior, but it doesn't scream "luxury," and it just feels small.
Our test car's all-black interior made an already tight cabin feel even more confining, but I had plenty of headroom and legroom when driving alone. After I put my kids in the backseat, however, I had to move my seat up farther than I was comfortable with to give them room.
I'm average height, at 5-foot-10, and I found the front to be a bit small. Taller editors complained loudly, one saying he felt like he was in a cave.
The materials are decent for an entry-level luxury car, but at $32,945 to start, the CT 200h isn't exactly cheap (all prices cited include destination charges). The roomier ILX Hybrid starts at $29,795 but packs less driving fun. For another $1,000, the F Sport trim on the Lexus added a claustrophobia-inducing black headliner to the black interior, as well as a unique steering wheel. Yet the car comes with faux-leather seat covering called NuLuxe. Leather costs an additional $1,330.
Lexus' optional navigation and multimedia system in my test car is a generation behind versions I've tested in the new GS and ES. The control mimics a computer mouse, but requires commands to be entered via a button on the side, where your thumb rests. Newer versions let you click on the controller itself. The 7-inch display screen is also considerably smaller than the 12.3-inch screens the larger sedans pack.
Despite its ease of use, I'm not sure the option is worth its $2,735 price. An upgraded stereo isn't part of the package; it comes in an $890 Premium Package, which buyers are unlikely to escape on the cars already on dealer lots.
I was a bit surprised by how much room the hatch provided. I was expecting something close to the Mini Cooper's 5.7 cubic feet, but it's rated at 14.3 cubic feet. The CT 200h fit a day of shopping trips with my kids -- meaning the bags had to fit without the rear seats folding down.
The added utility of the hatch and folding rear seats definitely sets the CT apart from the ILX: The hybrid sedan has only 10 cubic feet of trunk space.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety deemed the CT 200h a Top Safety Pick, representing Good ratings in side, rear and medium-overlap frontal crash tests as well as roof strength. A more strenuous small-overlap front test has yet to be performed on the CT 200h.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has not crash-tested the CT 200h.
CT 200h in the Market
Is there even a market for a sporty, luxury, hatchback hybrid? Judging by CT 200h sales to date, there's a small one; it has clearly been a success as a niche car.
It's easy to see why people like it. It delivers inspired handling and 40 mpg, with a small amount of utility thrown in.
The price may keep some shoppers away, though -- there are plenty of thrills for less money at dealerships, even if they do cost more at the pump.