Lexus CT200h review

A Lexus that is even more efficient than a Toyota Prius sounds hard to believe, but it's true. The new CT200h hybrid has just been certified with an emission output of just 87g/km, which is 2g/km less than Toyota's famous eco-warrior. Not bad for a prestige model.

The CT200h is the first Lexus hatch and will lob into Australia early next year with a starting price below $50,000 on a mission to not only dramatically boost Lexus sales, but also lure younger buyers to the brand. It was developed solely as a hybrid and there will be no petrol-only version.

The CT200h uses the same petrol-electric power pack and drivetrain as the Prius, which also means it is the first front-drive Lexus in Australia since the Camry-based ES 300 models were retired in 2005. It has the same wheelbase as a Toyota Corolla and Prius, but Lexus says the base is significantly different.

The CT200h shares the MacPherson strut front suspension with those models, but has a sportier double wishbone rear suspension system. The new Lexus is a five-seat hatch with 375 litres of bootspace and has a space saver spare in some markets.

VALUE

Lexus is yet to confirm final pricing, but the sub-$50,000 indication shows it will slot into the line-up below the IS sedan. Determining value is hard because there are more enjoyable cars around for less money, but they aren't hybrids.

It is the cheapest way to get into a Lexus without buying one second-hand. Technology The CT200h uses the proven technology of the Prius, with a bit of a techno tickle to upgrade the experience. That means it has a 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol engine tuned for economy an electric motor and generator all linked up to nickel metal hydride battery.

It can run entirely in electric mode at very low speeds and scavenges energy normally wasted under deceleration. A continuously variable automatic is a crucial part of the system, there is no manual option.

The CT has been tuned with different modes, which change the engine characteristics and power steering assistance. Eco mode dulls the throttle input to help a jerky driver achieve better fuel economy, while the Sport mode sharpens the throttle response and makes the steering feel heavier. The instrument cluster glows blue in most modes, but switches to red in Sport mode.

The CT200h has an official average fuel economy figure of just 3.8 litres per 100km. While most of the emphasis has been placed on economy, Lexus also went out of its way to optimise the handling.

The new model has front and rear suspension strut braces, developed by Yamaha, which feature a centre damper to reduce vibrations without losing rigidity. Lexus has also used aluminum for the bonnet and boot hatch in a bid to keep the weight pegged to 1370kg. Despite these measures, the CT200h is unlikely to win any drag races with a pedestrian 0-100k m/h time of 10.3 seconds.

SAFETY

As you would expect from a Lexus, the CT200h is loaded with safety gear including eight airbags, electronic stability control, brake assist and seats designed to reduce whiplash.

It will also be available with an option Pre Collision system which uses radar to predict collisions with vehicles in front and prime the brakes and tighten seatbelts and can even slow the vehicle automatically.

DESIGN

This is a controversial one. The first Lexus hatch was always going to cop some flak, but the CT200h polarizes opinions. For me it is not an attractive car. It looks good from some angles, but ugly from others.

It certainly isn't an integrated design with a mixture of straight lines and curves that jars. Lexus Australia was ready for criticism of the design at our preview, pro-actively pointing out that an Australian marketing group thought it was the best looking car in its class although they were looking at pictures and not the car in the metal.

DRIVING

A test drive of a pre-production car near Paris revealed Lexus must do some last minute work to lift the standard of the CT200h before it arrives in Australia.

The tyre and road noise on coarse chip surfaces, similar to Australian country roads, was loud for a small car and simply unacceptable for a prestige model. There were also far too many vibrations coming into the cabin. Lexus has promised to work on this.

There are other issues that could affect the popularity of the car in Australia, but let's cover some positives. This is a practical eco car. There is quite a reasonable amount of bootspace and a good amount of legroom and headroom for two rear passengers.

Forget the fifth seat, it is tiny. It handles quite well. We're not talking BMW driving pleasure, but the CT200h is a lot more fun than the Prius and you can tell chief engineer Osamu Sadakata, who races a Mazda MX-5, enjoys corners.

The performance is acceptable for an eco hatch, but nothing to get excited about. You will be able to keep up with traffic though. The very nature of a step-less CVT transmission means it is also less involving. Customers are more likely to get excited about the fuel economy and we recorded a figure of just over 6 litres per 100km driving the car hard. Unfortunately the suspension and most likely the damping is not quite right. It picks up the tiniest of niggles and sends them through to the cabin. It depends on the surfaces, but can be overwhelmingly fidgety on some surfaces. The interior styling is passable, but the crisp and futuristic instrument cluster is spoiled by an old-school liquid crystal display in the corner and the centre screen that looks ancient compared to the latest versions in other cars and smart phone displays.

VERDICT

If Lexus can dramatically reduce the road noise and vibrations and fix the suspension the CT200h could still be a good premium eco car that attracts new customers to Lexus. It's a different concept, trading performance for economy, but there's no reason it can't succeed if executed correctly.

LEXUS CT200H

Price: Below $50,000
Engine: 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol and electric motor
Power: 100kW at 5200revs
Torque: 142Nm at 4000revs
Transmission: Continuously variable automatic, front-wheel drive
Fuel economy: 3.8L/100km
Emissions: 87g/km

SPECIFICATIONS

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