By June Neary
The Lexus CT200h bangs the drum for hybrid power in the premium hatch class. June Neary tries the improved version.
Will It Suit Me?
Rarely did a car leave me quite as puzzled as the original Lexus CT200h. Every time I drove it, I came away with a different impression. Every time I looked at it, I swung from thinking it was a handsomely proportioned thing to finding it ungainly and fussy in its detailing. Lexus' idea of putting Toyota Prius mechanicals in a posh frock was a good one but a lack of refinement, a thrashy CVT auto gearbox and over-firm ride all told against the car in its original form in its quest to offer a real alternative to premium small German hatchbacks like BMW's 1 Series and Audi's A3. Now though, Lexus says these issues have been addressed and sorted. Time to give this car another chance.
Given that the Lexus is probably competing with entry-level diesel versions of BMW's 1 Series and Audi's A3, it doesn't do at all badly when it comes to practicality. Premium hatches as a breed don't make spaciousness a big priority and the Lexus remains better than the class norm, though what would be quite a decent luggage capacity is compromised by the battery pack located underneath the rear seats and boot floor. Still, the 375-litre boot capacity is class-competitive. Leg and headroom dimensions in the back are adequate and the small of stature shouldn't feel cramped, though the CT's high waistline means the view out isn't great for shorties. The good news is that, when it comes to perceived quality - the standard of the paintwork, fixtures and fittings, the sense of solidity and the tactility of the cabin materials - the Lexus can stand toe-to-toe with Audi and BMW and better them in certain regards. It certainly looks a more modern piece of interior design than any of the German rivals.
Behind the Wheel
If you're still not familiar with the hybrid driving experience, a bit of adjustment will be needed - but not too much. Press the 'Start' button and the virtual silence is very, very different from the ugly, grumbly diesel note delivered by this car's competitors. That's because from start-up to speeds of up to 25mph, or for very short distances, this car (in theory anyway) is supposed to automatically operate in 'EV' mode under electric power alone. Unfortunately, the range in question really is very short - about 1.2 miles. It would be longer if this car used a modern lithium-ion rechargeable battery rather than an old-tech nickel metal hydride one - but that of course would add to the cost. Once you're up and running with battery and petrol power chipping in and out, Lexus says that the CT200h has been engineered to perform in two driving 'moods', 'Relaxing' or 'Dynamic', depending on the setting you choose from a dash-mounted centre drive controller. In truth, this car never gets really 'Dynamic' but if you really want to push on, 62mph can be achieved from rest in 10.3s. Tweaks to the CVT auto gearbox that all CTs must have has alleviated the awful thrashiness that was there before. Oh and the car's chassis has been stiffened so that the springs can be softened a bit. That's why the ride quality seems more compliant these days. My favourite bit though, is how beautifully quiet everything all is. Previously, though the hybrid engine was certainly quiet, the rest of the car wasn't. Now, Lexus has sorted that. If you're urban-bound, it's a lovely way to travel. Without the company of a running internal combustion engine, you start to hear all sorts of other sounds you otherwise miss; people's conversations at bus stops, grit pinging off the car's underside, the engine notes of other cars and your keys jangling in your handbag.
Value For Money
You get a wide range of trim levels with this improved CT200h but as before, they all embellish one essential package that gives you a five-door bodystyle and an automatic-only petrol/electric hybrid powerplant offering a combined 134bhp output. Prices range in the £21,000 to £30,000 bracket and at the bottom of the range, there's a freshly-added 'S' variant that's even cheaper than a comparable Toyota Prius and comes with smaller 15-inch alloy wheels that help towards better running costs. At the other end of the scale though, paying around £30,000 for a top Premier version of this car would be hard to justify, given that the same kind of money would buy you a hybrid version of the next model up in the Lexus model range, the stylish IS, with nearly twice as much power. As for running costs, well, you'll need to take the official combined consumption figures a pinch of salt - for the record, we're talking 78.5mpg for the base S model with its smaller 15-inch wheels and 68.9mpg across all other variants. Lexus may be able to achieve these returns by initially creeping along at under 25mph on an industry test track until the full electric-only driving range is used up but try that in the real world and you'd get a queue of angry motorists behind you. CO2 though, can be as low as 82g/km., miles better than a diesel automatic German rival.
Could I Live With One?
The Lexus CT200h is a very easy car to live with and one that could certainly find space in my life. It's unobtrusively styled and acts as a wonderful antidote to the hustle and bustle of modern living. In many respects it reminds me of my old university professor; always interesting, a bit odd-looking, fiendishly clever but with some quirky characteristics. Refreshingly different though.