Lexus, like a number of the luxury brands, follows a train of thought that getting a buyer into their brand early makes a loyal brand customer from then on.
Developing and executing that right entry level vehicle is a very delicate exercise in getting the right level of the brand DNA, luxury and performance into that vehicle in a size that allows an attractive price while retaining the brand DNA attributes.
We think it is questionable that the manufacturer accomplishes the objective - in many cases - in getting, and then keeping, a brand loyal customer going forward. Particularly in the high premium or luxury brand vehicles where the size of the vehicle is so often a key element in its luxury and performance cache for the customer.
Each manufacturer who tries to follow that train of thought looks to offer a low price, with brand identifiable features in an entry level vehicle for new customers, who have limited purchase resources to, in this case, own a Lexus branded vehicle.
For Lexus, we are not sure that their current entry level vehicle, the 2013 Lexus CT200h - at least at the base level, meets that objective. Let's take a look.
Starting with a couple of plus factors, the CT200h offers a first access to the Lexus luxury line of automobiles at a low price point (MSRP $32,050), with an environmental friendly hybrid electric power train and excellent fuel economy of 43/40 mpg City/Highway with an average of 42 mpg.
Lexus is able to borrow from their Toyota parent their considerable expertise in hybrid technology and, accordingly, the CT200h relies heavily on the reliable Toyota Prius power train engineering for its running gear.
The power train is a 1.8L inline-4 gas engine that runs with a pair of electric motor generators to deliver 134 horsepower to the front wheel drive system through the continuously variable transmission (CVT).
From the Lexus heritage, it brings the Drive Mode Select system to enhance its performance by enabling the driver to make the CT200h more responsive or efficient with the simple turn of the switch. ECO mode moderates the throttle response, engine power output and climate settings for increased fuel efficiency. Normal mode provides the optimal balance of fuel efficiency and engine performance.
For performance driving the Sport mode alters the power train for faster and more dynamic throttle mapping and the EV mode enables short distance driving at low speeds on the battery power alone.
So much for the good stuff.
As for the CVT integration with the Drive Mode Select system. we do not like ECO mode as it is sluggish and pretty unresponsive in order for it to give maximum fuel economy.
Normal mode delivers a reasonably good driving experience, while the Sport mode takes it to a level closer to how we would expect a Lexus to perform.
Overall, to cut to the chase, we find that the size (compact) of the CT200h to be a limiter in making this look, feel and perform like a Lexus at the compact level - especially at the entry level MSRP price point. For $32,000 - without options - it is just not a Lexus.
We have been driving a 2013 Lexus CT200h Premium F Sport model for the past week and find that, loaded up with available options, the CT200h does begin to be more like the Lexus we would expect, but that experience and satisfaction also comes with a higher price.
Our test CT200h Premium F Sport came with the Premium Package with Navigation for $890 which added some normally Lexus standard interior features and upped the audio system to a 10-speaker premium unit.
Also added was the F Sport Package with Black Leather Interior for $2,930 which included the more responsive F Sport tuned suspension along with standard assortment of F Sport accessory items which make it look more like a Lexus, but do not add measurably to the performance.
LED auto leveling headlamps were another $1,215 with the final package being the HDD Navigation for still another $2,785 which included the higher end assortment of infotainment, navigation and convenience technologies you would normally associate with a Lexus.
With these added packages, this CT200h (now a Premium F Sport) was a lot more like a Lexus should be in appearance, interior amenities and technology offerings than the base MSRP entry priced CT200h unit.
With delivery this loaded up, 2013 Lexus CT200h Premium F Sport priced out at a pretty stiff $40,515.
Unfortunately even with these options added, our driving experience in the CT200h Premium F Sport was less than our expectation and not close to the level of the F Sport experience in the other (larger) Lexus F Sport models.
We found it very small to get in and out of, the front seating to be uncomfortable with bolsters not placed properly - rear seating and head room tight and the power train to be more suitable for economy than performance with ride quality that was certainly not Lexus.
A better choice for Lexus - with a probable higher factor of satisfaction and customer retention - would be to not try and engage new Lexus owners at the compact segment.
The IS250 (MSRP $35,950) or the ES350 (MSRP $36,470) models (which we have driven) would make far better choices for entry level vehicles at the next segments up.
Adding similar available options to the IS or ES would, of course, increase those price points, but the size of the vehicles makes them a better choice performer for delivering a true Lexus DNA drive and ride experience - and keeping the customer in a Lexus going forward.
The CT200h is continued for 2014 with some minor changes on the exterior and interior to bring in more of the Lexus appearance factors such as the distinctive spindle-style grille and some other minor adjustments to lines and lighting.
Sales for the CT200h continue in the range of 12-15,000 per year and we expect that 2014 will not be better than that.