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Lexus CT200h review (2011 onwards)
What - Lexus CT200h
Where - Chantilly, France
Date - October 2010
Price - £23,485 - £30,635 (including 20% VAT)
Available - early 2011
Key rivals - Audi A3, BMW 1 Series, Alfa Romeo Giulietta, Volvo C30, Volkswagen Golf, Ford Focus
Summary - the CT200h is the smallest Lexus ever, and the first to bring hybrid technology to the compact premium sector. But can clean living overcome the challenging looks and lacklustre driving experience?
We like - smooth hybrid drive, low CO2, cheap to run, Lexus customer service, value
We don't like - horrible ride quality, no fun, uninspired design, rear legroom
Whatever you think of the way the Lexus CT200h looks - and we're saying nothing - you have got to respect this new compact premium hybrid for its figure(s).
Full homologation isn't yet completed, but in the UK the CT200h is expected to emit no more than 96g/km CO2 - and there will be a European version that emits just 89g/km.
This comes in combination with 136hp courtesy of a petrol-electric hybrid drivetrain similar to that found in the Toyota Prius - which looks good compared to the power output of most eco diesel alternatives.
Beyond this, the CT200h is the smallest car Lexus has ever built, and the first hybrid to compete in the compact premium sector, taking on the likes of the Audi A3 and the BMW 1 Series.
Promising zero road tax and congestion charging, just 10% benefit-in-kind company car tax, impressive petrol fuel economy and the smug satisfaction of a planet-saving image well done, the hybrid lure here is likely to be strong.
Especially once you factor in the attractive asking price - it starts from £23,485 (including 20% VAT) - and Lexus' unmatched reputation for customer service. But the CT200h is far from perfect, as you'll see...
Behind the CT200h's pinched snout you'll find a 99hp 1.8-litre petrol engine and an 82hp electric motor; complications related to the delivery of battery power mean total output is pegged to 136hp.
Similarly, although the electric motor generates 152lb ft of torque instantly, and the petrol engine 104lb ft at 4,000rpm, the CT200h never feels as punchy as a modern turbodiesel.
This is reflected in the 0-62mph time - 10.3 seconds is just 0.1 second faster than a Prius, and someway behind the sub-10 second times most modest turbodiesels in this sector provide; a CVT automatic gearbox and 1,370kg kerbweight the culprits here.
Still, this is a 'full' hybrid, which means it can travel under electric power alone for short distances - so you find yourself cruising through town accompanied by little more than a faint electric whine. Much better than the droning hum of the petrol engine.
There's even a dedicated 'EV mode' button to force electric-only operation at speeds up to 28mph. But in practice we found the CT200h more than capable of making its own decisions about when to switch, with the transition between 'electric vehicle' and regular motivation always smooth.
Three other general driving modes are offered: Normal, Sport and Eco - selected via the largest knob on the dashboard. Sport turns the instrument illumination red and changes the power meter into a rev counter, which is neat if gimmicky.
It also boosts the voltage to the motor, increasing output, while sharpening the throttle and the steering, and reducing the intervention of the stability control. Disappointingly we detected very little real difference between this and the Normal setting.
Eco is a touch smarter. It reacts more slowly to aggressive accelerator inputs and optimises the power consumption of the climate control to avoid wasting fuel. You can happily drive the CT200h in this mode without feeling compromised.
Ride and handling
It's a few months before the CT200h reaches UK showrooms, so Lexus may yet tweak the chassis settings. But as things stand right now you should be very careful with your alloy wheel selection.
All but one of the cars on launch were fitted with 17-inch alloys. This aggravates the ride to the point where it becomes far too harsh on all but the smoothest surfaces; tiresome over a few hours, living with it day-to-day would be torture.
Lexus has clearly mistaken 'dynamic' for 'bumpy' - perhaps not helped by taking the A3 and 1 Series as benchmarks (neither of these ride very well either, especially in their sportiest trim levels).
Swapping to 16-inch alloys improves things tremendously - the extra amount of tyre sidewall softening the ride just enough to make it acceptable, though arguably still a touch too crashy around town.
But if the damping is slightly amiss, the way the CT200h carries your chosen line through corners no matter what happens to the road surface (and your back) suggests the chassis is fundamentally well sorted.
However, Lexus has sadly once again completely failed to grasp the importance of feedback. So while the steering is sharp the weighting is odd, and it transmits absolutely no information about what's happening at the road surface.
As a result, the limits tend to sneak up and take you by surprise - resulting in sudden, unexpected grip loss, usually at high speed. Which is not a very pleasant experience...
The chances of many CT200h customers ever actually going this fast? Relatively slight we should think. But the car would be more enjoyable to drive at any speed if the steering was more communicative.
The interior of the Lexus CT200h has some nice touches, but there's an overwhelming sense that the designers could have tried harder. It seems that function and organisation have thoroughly usurped genuine 'design'.
The buttons fit the space surrounding them, rather than the other way round. These hand-built pre-production cars showed some variation in material quality, too. The glove box is tiny, and rear legroom tight.
Engine refinement is generally good - but this means your attention is drawn to other noises, like the wind rustling around the door tops and the roar from the tyres over certain road surfaces.
The left-hand side front seat can also quite clearly hear a fan sucking air through a vent to the right side of the rear bench; this is done to temperature control the batteries. Turning on the stereo is enough to mask it.
The batteries themselves are under the rear floor, reducing the boot to 375 litres and creating a higher than normal load space. This does mean a flat deck with the back seats folded, though.
We're not keen on the 'Remote Touch' input system for the sat-nav. This manoeuvres an onscreen pointer, a little like a computer mouse, but it's hard to control on the move and the input process is overly complex.
The ill-conceived elements of the CT200h's interior become even more glaring in light of the attention to detail Lexus has paid in other areas. The climate control, for example, aims to maximise engine efficiency.
Not only does it interact with the Eco driving mode, on cold mornings it automatically activates the heated seats to warm you in order to reduce the strain on the ventilation system, which in turn helps the engine heat up faster. Genius.
Economy and safety
Payback for putting up with the various annoyances comes with the economy. Lexus claims 68.9mpg combined for the 96g/km CO2 version of the CT200h - staggeringly good for a petrol engine.
And while it can't quite match the 70mpg plus of the best eco diesels, petrol power is especially clean when it comes to particulate and NOx emissions. Irrelevant in UK taxation terms, but better for the environment.
Running costs should also prove to be among the best in the segment, since the hybrid system supposedly reduces tyre and brake pad wear as well as improving fuel consumption.
Safety levels are expected to reach the full Euro NCAP five-stars, with stability control and eight airbags standard. You can upgrade this further with a 'Pre-Crash Safety' system, something no other premium small car can offer.
While there is much about the new Lexus CT200h that leaves us technically impressed this car isn't easy to like. It's no fun at all to drive, the interior is uninspired and the exterior design best described as, well, ugly.
We doubt any of this is going to stop the CT200h achieving success. The hybrid image, the low taxation figures, the asking price and Lexus' thoroughly deserved reputation for customer service makes this a highly sensible overall proposition.
As it stands Audi and BMW should already be worried. But if Lexus can just fix the ride quality and the steering before the CT200h goes on sale, the Germans will be facing an even more convincing compact premium alternative.
|Need to know|
|Engines, petrol||1.8 + electric motor|
|Torque, lb ft||102 (1.8). 152 (electric motor)|
|0-62 mph, secs||10.3|
|Top speed, mph||112|
|CO2, g/km / Tax||96 / 10%|
|Ride & handling||**|
|MSN Cars verdict||***|
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