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Jruhi4 REVIEW: Lexus CT 200h: A tale of two continents

This author has had the privilege of attending Press Previews for Lexus’ ISIS FIS CHS and LFA models at different venues throughout the United States. In light of this, Lexus’ decision to hold the CT Press Preview in France, on the eve of the 2010 Paris Motor Show, might seem to border on the frivolous (not that we’re complaining…). Yet, our early arrival for the event gave us a weekend to explore the City of Lights that soon underscored why, precisely, Lexus had chosen such a cosmopolitan and bustling European locale for the driving debut of its smallest vehicle ever. A, B and C-segment small hatchbacks and mini-minivans rule the roost, and the D-segment Lexus IS, so seemingly compact in North America, suddenly seems to be an unwieldly large vehicle amidst narrow Parisian side streets. Parallel parking seems to be joining shift-it-yourself clutch-pedal manual transmissions as lost arts for many U.S. motorists, but that is hardly the case in large European cities, where cars park with inches to spare and one soon realizes that the decision to offer optional front and rear parking sensors on a BMW MINI isn’t really as absurd as this author once thought. For those of you that get all bent out of shape over the smallest scratch on your bumpers, be prepared to die of cardiac arrest if you live in Europe, for over there, bumpers truly live up to their billing, and the custom is to gently (or not-so-gently) tap the cars in front of you and behind you as you squeeze into a parking space barely large enough for your car.

As you glance at French car ads and dealership signs, one can’t help but notice the inordinate importance given to CO2 emissions numbers, expressed in grams per kilometer (g/km) and used as the basis for taxation schemes common throughout Europe. In some cases, this number is advertised more prominently than fuel economy numbers, which are expressed as liters consumed in 100 kilometers of driving, thus producing the counterintuitive to Americans phenomenon that lower numbers equal greater fuel economy.

This being a Lexus CT 200h fan site with, judging by anecdotal evidence, a good number of European-based members, we’ll be delving into some detail into the differences between European and American-market versions of the CT, as we have done in our previous Colours and Europe vs U.S. Variations Front Page articles.

U.S. vs European sales goals
Yes, the Old World is certainly a different world automobile-wise, and, in analyzing the Lexus CT 200h, we must recall that it was built primarily to help Lexus reach its goal of doubling its 2009 European sales by the end of the 2012 calendar year. To be precise, back in March 2010, Andy Pfeiffenberger, vice president for Lexus Europe stated that he expected Lexus’ European sales for 2011 to reach the 50,000 mark, versus 28,000 units sold in Europe in 2009. Although the Lexus CT 200h Product Presentation for U.S. journalists and subsequent remarks by Lexus USA group vice president and general manager Mark Templin didn’t delve into specific European CT 200h sales projections, the previous sentences imply a rough goal of 1800 sales a month for 2011 and 2000 units per month for 2012. In stark contrast, they did lay out a specific and far more modest goal for U.S. sales in the order of 1000 units a month.

Which vehicles, precisely, the Lexus CT 200h is up against in the U.S. market was the subject of some lively discussion in thread, but Lexus itself confirmed this author’s inclinations that the Audi A3 and Volvo C30 are CT 200h’s main rivals. More puzzling is their inclusion of the BMW 1-Series, which in the U.S. is only available as an inline 6-powered nothback coupe and convertible, as the third CT rival. Those 1000 Lexus CT U.S. units a month, while roughly half of European sales projections, would still give Lexus a commanding lead in the admittedly niche entry-luxury compact segment, since BMW only moves 550 1-Series units a month in the U.S., and more direct rivals Audi A3 and Volvo only 360 and 350 units each a month, respectively. Thus, Lexus expects CT 200h to roughly double total sales in this segment.

It could be argued that the upcoming 5-door MINI Countryman might be a natural Lexus CT rival, as well, but Lexus USA apparently disagrees. To the north of us, our Canadian neighbours can also count the Mercedes-Benz B-Class and, arguably, the “glorified Honda Civic” Acura CSX, while in Europe, all the aforementioned cars (except the Acura) are joined by the more frugal 3 and 5-door hatchback 4-cylinder gas and diesel versions of the BMW 1-Series and the just-launched Alfa Romeo Giulietta, among others, as Lexus CT competitors in the heart of the C-Premium segment.

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U.S. market equipment levels and packages
As our earlier The Official Lexus USA CT 200h Press Releases Front Page story informed us, we’ll be offered exclusively the 17″ “alternate curved spoke” wheel shown above as standard equipment. Other key U.S. standard items include XM Satellite Radio,Safety Connect telematics, NuLuxe Synthetic Leather seating surfaces, leather-trimmed steering wheel and dual-zone climate control. An interesting and unique Universal Device Holder (shown below) will also be standard for the U.S. market only. As its name implies, this will hold any number of aftermarket navigation units (such as Garmin or TomTom), smartphones (such as iPhone, Blackberry or Android), iPod Nano and the like. It sits in the central console, below the Drive Mode controller and to the right of either the Remote Touch mouse-like controller or the indented shallow open storage area, depending on equipment levels.

Four distinct option packages are available. The first of these is the Audio and Moonroof Package, which features the Lexus Premium Audio System (a 10-speaker and in-dash 6-disc CD changer upgrade on the standard 6 speakers and single-CD player audio system), power moonroof, HomeLink garage door opener and auto-dimming inside rearview mirror with compass. TheAudio and Moonroof + Backup Camera Package adds an in-mirror backup camera, while the Audio and Moonroof + Navigation Package replaces the mirror-mounted backup camera with one fully integrated into the voice-activated Hard Disk Drive Navigaton System and also includes the Remote Touch controller and adds Lexus Enform functions to the standard Safety Connect telematics. Finally, a Leather Package includes, naturally, perforated genuine leather-trimmed seats, as well as a driver’s seat memory function, heated front seats (alas, unfortunately, no ventilated seating as on other Lexus models) auto-dimming outside mirrors with reverse auto tilt-down and rain-sensing wipers.

For those of you that prefer to do your option shopping à la carte, the power moonroof, heated front seats and in-mirror backup camera are each available as stand-alone options. The other two stand-alone options are LED headlamps with headlamp washers (a signature Lexus hybrid option) and the Pre-Collision System (PCS) with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control.

European market equipment levels and packages
Unlike the relatively simple and straightforward equipment and option package situation in the United States, the considerable leeway Lexus Europe allows each individual country insofar as content and equipment levels make for a bewildering and byzantine array of packages and models that vary, literally, country-by-country. For those of you wanting to know the particulars for a given market, we suggest visiting the Lexus Europe gateway page which contains links to all 36 individual European country websites. A 37th site, the pan-European contains a CT 200h Equipment & Options page with what is pretty much the typical Euro pattern of a trio of models. The base model is the one producing all the stellar fuel economy, CO2 emissions and coefficient of drag numbers, but, by North American standards, would barely be considered a Lexus, with its 15″ Prius-like alloy wheels, fabric seats, 6-speaker and single-CD stereo and an option list consisting solely of a DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) radio upgrade module and cruise control. Next up is the mid-grade model, which is the most flexible insofar as option and package availability (and, this author suspects, will be the most popular). Finally, the top-of-the-line version includes 17” alloy wheels, LED low-beam headlights, satellite navigation operated by Remote Touch, leather upholstery and heated front seats as standard, with the Pre-crash Safety System (PCS) with Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), the DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) radio upgrade module and an electric sunroof listed as the sole options.

We can’t emphasize enough, however, those individual market variations. Great Britain, for instance, follows the U.S. pattern of offering the 17″ wheels as standard on all three grade levels (SE-I, SE-L and SE-L Premier). Germany and the Netherlands have seemingly bucked the broader European pattern by offering four models, while other countries (such as Italy, Belgium and Norway) have yet to post their equipment, option and package information. Spain simply lists the base model with 15″ wheels and no word on options or packages, and we suspect that this will be revised by the time the CT 200h goes on sale.

Adaptive Performance Dampers an option?!
Lexus is justifiably proud of its ingenious Adaptive Performance Dampers (essentially two horizontally-placed extra-long monotube shock absorbers that help absorb vibrations) that were discussed at length in press releases from both the U.S. and the U.K., as well as being featured in a video. This, plus their prominent role in previous CT 200h press brochures had led us to believe that they would be standard equipment across the board on all models of Lexus’ smallest-ever hybrid. That will be the case in the United States, but not in Europe and Japan. In Europe, at least, the performance dampers will seemingly be part of one of several packages available on the mid-level and higher models, and won’t be offered on the base “Eco” models.

Why didn’t Lexus hide the rear wiper in the spoiler over the rear window?
The lack of a visible rear window wiper on early CT 200h pre-production prototypes (including the first CT to come to the United States for the 2010 New York Auto Show) led many of us to believe that Lexus would adopt the solution it first pioneered on the 3rd-generation RX (and later spread to the latest Toyota Sienna minivan) of hiding the rear wiper overhead, on the rooftop spoiler. When closer-to-production CT prototypes appeared with a very visible and stubby rear wiper mounted along the bottom of the rear window, many an Internet pundit and aesthetic purist howled in disappointment. Thus, we couldn’t help but ask about this point. The reply, from Lexus CT 200h chief engineer Osamu (Sam) Sadakata informed us that placing the rear wiper overhead, tucked away behind the spoiler, would’ve had two negative repercussions: it would’ve forced a bigger rear spoiler, which would’ve negatively impacted the coefficient of drag more than having the exposed wiper below, and having the wiper and its mechanism overhead would’ve raised the vehicle’s center of gravity, which us hardcore car enthusiasts know is a no-no insofar as optimizing driving dynamics.

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Left to right: Author jruhi4, CT chief engineer Osamu Sadakata, co-editor Flipside909

Osamu (Sam) Sadakata, the Lexus CT 200h chief engineer
When starting work back in 2006 on what is expected to be among Lexus’ best-selling hybrid models, the carmaker turned to its most experienced hybrid chief engineer for the task: Osamu (Sam) Sadakata. He first joined Toyota in 1983, with his first assignment being in the sound and vibration department. His first assignment as chief engineer was a pivotal one: the RX 400h variant of the 2nd-generation Lexus RX that was the brand’s first-ever hybrid. Next, he shepherded the Lexus LS 600h, and Sadakata-san freely admits that his third consecutive Lexus hybrid chief engineer assignment couldn’t have been more different from the second. With LS 600h, he was given carte blanche to create Lexus’ ne plus ultra, with no cost or effort spared to make it as smooth and quiet and sumptuously luxurious as possible. CT, by contrast, had to bring Lexus luxury and quality to a more competitive and price-conscious segment, arguably a more challenging task.

Lest you think that Sadakata-san is just another eco-weenie unconcerned with driving dynamics and handling, nothing could be further from the truth. Like fellow hybrid chief engineer Hiroyuki (Hiro) Koba, who did the honors for the Lexus HS and is an avid autocrosser whose daily driver is a Toyota MR-S (MR2) Spider, with some TRD modifications and goodies, Sam Sadakata has his own race-ready 2-seat sports car, in his case a Mazda MX-5 Roadster. Between his impeccable enthusiast credentials and his awareness that success in the demanding European market demands nothing less than top-notch dynamic behavior, rest assured that Lexus CT is as involving a drive as its engineers can make it within its design and component parameters.

The next step in eco-friendly materials
That’s not to say, however, that eco-friendliness has been thrown out the window. Lexus CT’s immediate dedicated hybrid predecessor, the HS, pioneered a number of environmentally-friendly solutions, such as being the first of the brand’s vehicles to utilize plant-based, carbon-neutral “Ecological Plastics” or bio-plastics in about 30% of the interior and luggage area. As a recent press release from the Toyota USA Newsroom informs us, Toyota has actually been using Ecological Plastics during the last decade, with its maximum application to date (covering 60% of the exposed surfaces of interior parts) in the Lexus HS’s downmarket Japanese Domestic Market sibling, the Toyota Sai hybrid sedan. Lexus CT is the pioneer in the use of next-generation bio-PET-based Ecological Plastic (developed in conjunction with Toyota Tsusho Corporation) for its luggage-compartment liner, as shown below.

Also prominent in the Lexus CT materials story is the use of bamboo, the world’s most easily and quickly renewable wood. This author has been personally lobbying Lexus USA officials for a bamboo interior wood trim option since being smitten by seeing it on an Aston Martin DB9 several years ago, and the CT finally makes this dream a reality. Bamboo is also the basis of another of Lexus CT’s pioneering technical innovations: the audio systems’ speakers, which are made from a complex compound combining bamboo charcoal, bamboo fiber and resin. This makes them much more durable and lighter than speakers made of other materials. To be precise, the speaker diaphragms are injection-molded to a thickness of only 0.008-0.01 in., and are some 10-15 percent lighter than a conventional diaphragm.

For PETA lovers who cringe at the thought of dead cows lining the seats and interior of their environmentally-correct Lexus CT hybrids (even though cow and horse flatulence far exceed motor vehicles as a source of global warming-causing CO2 emissions, but I digress…), the U.S. will see Lexus’ answer to BMW’s leatherette and Mercedes-Benz’s MB-Tex: NuLuxe Synthetic Leather. The manufacture of NuLuxe uses no Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC), no solvents, no metal dies (instead using digital data for pattern processing) and 65% less CO2 output than rival synthetic leathers. As an added bonus, NuLuxe seating is 50% lighter than genuine leather seating.

CT 200h F Sport: Hiromu Naruse’s swan song
The first mention of F Sport accessories in conjunction with CT 200h came towards the end of the press preview’s product presentation, when the U.S. market’s dealer-installed accessories list revealed an alternate 17″ F Sport wheel patterned after that of the CT-previewing Lexus LF-Ch concept, as shown above. We also learned that, while items such as an intake and a big brake kit are out of the question for a hybrid like CT 200h, there will be a sportier F Sport suspension (presumably consisting of the usual firmer shocks, larger-diameter sway bars and firmer springs good for a drop of no more than an inch) available sometime after the car’s launch. And, in a poignant note, we learned that tuning and calibrating this suspension was the final task carried out by Toyota’s legendary late master test driver Hiromu Naruse before his untimely demise at Germany’s Nürburgring this past June 23rd. (For those of you unfamiliar with Naruse-san’s background and significance, this author wrote a tribute article for the Kaizen Factor blog).

Other sources, however, had hinted at a full-on CT 200h F Sport model. At the Paris Auto Show floor, the “build-your-own” touch-screen display included an F Sport option with a darker graphite finish on its 17″ “curved alternate spoke” wheels but nothing on the floor of the Lexus stand to support this. It turns out that Lexus held back a little something from the Paris crowd and, instead, put a third continent into play: Australia, which is widely considered to be Lexus’ fourth major market behind North America, Europe and Japan. The 2010 Australian International Motor Show in Sydney, which opened to the public on 15 October, a scant two days before the close of the Paris show, thus hosted the world premiere of the F Sport variant of the Lexus CT 200h. Judging by the photos, the Ultrasonic Blue CT 200h F Sport is a visual stunner, set apart by not only the wheels but by the same zigzag grille mesh pattern as its IS F Sport and IS F brethren, sport suspension tuning and assorted cosmetic touches as detailed in an earlier Front Page story written by our parent’s Colum Wood.

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