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The CT200h is an appealing luxury hybrid hatch that’s spoiled by misjudged chassis settings and a lack of overall performance

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Not only is the Lexus CT200h the world’s first full-hybrid entrant in the ‘compact premium’ car category, but it is also Lexus’s first compact model. It was previewed by the LF-Ch concept shown at Frankfurt in 2009.

The CT200h’s petrol-electric parallel hybrid powertrain has already seen service in the four generations of Toyota’s environmental poster boy, the Toyota Prius. It also inherits a great deal of proven reliability from the two generations of Toyota Prius before that, stretching back to 1997. 

Lexus’s smallest hatch isn’t using the conventional form of motive power currently popular in this market segment

Even so, it’s not enough just to be different in a class oozing with impressive models. To be taken seriously in the premium hatchback pack, a car needs to drive like a BMW, be built like an Audi and have plenty of kerbside appeal. Not an easy task. Especially as more premium hybrid hatches are emerging from the woodwork - just look at the emergence of the Audi A3 e-tron, Volkswagen Golf GTE and the Mini Countryman Cooper S E.

The CT200h’s engine/electric motor set-up produces a combined 134bhp, which isn’t a huge amount in a car weighing more than 1600kgs (a portly passenger more than an Audi A3 Sportback) but even so, Lexus claims an impressive 68.9mpg on the combined cycle. Straight-line performance is less than sparkling, though, with an official 10.3sec 0-62mph time being touted by Lexus.

What that number doesn’t tell you is that to get to hit that speed is a pretty noisy affair, although once there, and cruising, it delivers more on its promise of the ‘silent revolution’.

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Those looking for a posh, smallish hybrid could easily overlook the slightly wooden steering, but it’s harder to forgive the harsh ride – even if it does corner far better than you’d expect.

What the Lexus certainly has on its side is appealing cost of ownership for company car drivers. Although it wears a premium badge, a huge amount of equipment means buyers don’t need to bump up their P11D value by diving into the options list.

After six years in production, the CT is being given a final facelift ahead of being replaced, with the exterior given sharper more purposeful lines, the interior given a light spruce of tech upgrades including a 10.3in infotainment system and Lexus's Safety System+. It includes autonomous emergency braking which operates at up to 50mph, alongside lane departure, traffic sign recognition, adpative cruise control and headlight assistance systems.

So is this the car that will finally make the compact hybrid truly desirable, or is it just an overpriced, over-equipped and predictably compromised economy car?

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Lexus CT rear

In light of the Toyota Prius’s hero status, it’s understandable that the Lexus CT200h should have a conventional five-door hatchback silhouette instead of a more aerodynamically efficient profile. It’s vital that this car has its own visual identity, and that it’s accepted into a class full of two-box hatchbacks such as the BMW 1 Series, Mercedes-Benz A-Class and Audi A3.

The Lexus looks contemporary, although not especially handsome to our eyes (its mission, remember, is to attract a more youthful customer to the brand), and it still sports a low drag coefficient of 0.29.

Smaller wheels lack the visual impact of the larger ones, but they improve the ride

The front wings have wheelarch liners and side protectors to reduce the road and engine noise that enters the cabin, while a dynamic noise damper positioned inside the tailgate reduces the transmission of road noise into the cabin via the boot floor. These features contribute to the impressive levels of mechanical refinement at low and medium speeds.

A power bulge in the bonnet is more than a little unnecessary on a 134bhp hybrid, but it’s one of the styling flourishes intended to attract younger clientele to the Lexus brand. The muscular rear haunches emphasise the CT200h’s broad stance on the road and have a similar aim.

On performance cars, exhaust styling is usually an evocative feature, but the Lexus’s designers have deliberately disguised the exhaust on the CT200h. Unless you peer under the valance, you wouldn’t know it had one.

Most of the models in the range look broadly the same, save for the F Sport, which gets a fairly subtle set of body tweaks, including bumpers, grille and gunmetal-coloured alloy wheels.

Standard wheels are 17-inch alloys except for the entry-level SE model, but you can specify softer-riding 16s with more sidewall as an option. For reasons of ride and comfort we’d recommend that you do.

INTERIOR

Lexus CT interior

If there’s one thing Lexus can do well, it’s design and equip a cabin. Considering the price tag, the Lexus CT200h is hugely impressive. The leathers are tactile and beautifully finished, the plastics soft and substantial.

Lexus claims a price advantage over a BMW 1 Series and Audi A3 Sportback once you adjust for equipment – that’s not including the ambience of richness and quality that comes as standard.

Despite the space-sapping battery, boot space is pretty good by class standards

Lexus generosity isn’t unbounded, though. Sat-nav and a DAB radio on mid-spec cars are extra and, because it comes bundled with a pre-crash safety system, adaptive cruise control is an expensive option even on a top-spec model.

On the equipment front there are six levels to choose from. Entry-level SE models get 16in alloy wheels, dual-zone climate control and Lexus's infotainment system complete with a 7.0in display, DAB radio, and Bluetooth and USB connectivity. Upgrade to SE with Plus Pack and get 17in alloy wheels, rear parking sensors, sat nav and a wealth of Lexus safety systems.

Mid-range Luxury trimmed CTs get keyless entry, a part-leather upholstery, heated front seats, tinted rear windows and front parking sensors all thrown into the package, while F-Sport gives you a CT with a sporty bodykit and gunmetal grey alloy wheels.

Spend a little more and invest in the F-Sport with Premier Pack and the CT is given a dose more luxury, including leather upholstery, premium sat nav system, LED headlights and a Mark Levinson sound system. Topping the range is the Premier trim, which adds the electrically heated and folding wing mirrors for a rather comprehensive package.

If you have a model with the sat-nav fitted, you’ll be unlucky enough to encounter Lexus’s Remote Touch multi-function controller. It’s supposed to operate like a computer mouse, but is fiddly to use and requires far too many commands to perform even the simplest of functions. BMW’s iDrive is a million times easier to use.

The driving position is low and comfortable, with plenty of adjustment and room for your extremities. The rear seats aren’t quite as impressive, however. While about as roomy as rivals' rear seats, it’ll be tight for adults or kids, while fitting a child seat will be extremely tricky.

However, the CT200h’s nickel-metal-hydride battery pack is cleverly packaged between the rear wheels, so it doesn’t take up much boot space. A full 375 litres of load bay with the seats raised is more than in a 1 Series, but that’s including the underfloor storage box.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Lexus CT side profile

The most pleasing aspect of Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive isn’t its economy but the relaxing lack of noise at low speed. In short, the Lexus CT200h is one seriously hushed car. Using electric power only, there’s barely a whine from the electric motor, while road and wind disturbance are negligible, courtesy of commendable cabin insulation.

Our noise meter shows the CT200h to be quieter than a Range Rover TDV8 at 30mph, and within four decibels of a Rolls-Royce Ghost.

Its not easy to balance performance and economy

When you call for more power, the car’s piston engine starts, barely perceptibly at first. Open the throttle wide, however, and you’ll certainly notice as it spins busily up to peak power to propel the Lexus’s 1450kg.

The hybrid powertrain doesn’t produce spectacular acceleration, however. Lexus claims 0-62mph in 10.3sec, but our two-way average to 60mph was 11.1sec.

The CT200h can be reasonably responsive, though. Select Sport mode and you get additional boost from the electric motor, as well as sharper throttle response. That done, you’ll find the Lexus has enough urge for relaxed overtaking below 70mph, provided there’s charge in its batteries.

The biggest problem with the car’s performance isn’t a shortage of outright power. It’s more that it’s delivered in a way that makes you feel only in vague control of either engine, and that makes you work doubly hard to gain and maintain speed.

Try to drive this car keenly, though, and the CT200h’s throttle may as well be a switch. You’re perpetually either flat out, waiting for the drivetrain to translate those high crank speeds into forward thrust, or off the accelerator completely, waiting for the batteries to regenerate.

Unless you’re happy to use lots of revs and throttle at motorway speeds and on cross-country roads, it’s actually frustratingly easy to lose your hard-earned speed up inclines and around corners.

RIDE & HANDLING

Lexus CT rear cornering

This section is all about compromise, and the Lexus CT200h is at sixes and sevens in the balance between chassis comfort and composure. The attention to detail the firm has employed in developing an all-new chassis for this car is laudable, but much of that effort is undone by a chassis tune that allows for scant compliance and makes for a fidgety ride on typically uneven UK roads.

You would hope a car configured for efficiency and class-leading mechanical refinement would be tuned to deliver a supple, absorptive ride. Not this one. Higher than typical spring and damper rates and stiff anti-roll bars combine to make the car’s primary ride choppy and restless on the motorway, and borderline uncomfortable on a B-road. The F Sport model exacerbates this, with firmer suspension. 

Lexus has gone the wrong way on the balance between chassis comfort and composure

Our review car’s secondary ride was better: on optional 16in wheels, it deals with smaller lumps and bumps reasonably quietly, and without harshness. That’s little consolation, though, when its body is diverted so frequently by bigger disturbances.

There is a trade-off. All that chassis stiffness gives the CT200h body control that’s beyond the grip of its tyres and the performance potential of its powertrain. In smooth, flowing corners it turns in quickly. It’s affected by almost no roll-steer and has steering precision to match, with well judged weight and even a little feel.

A particularly stiff rear suspension tune makes for a chassis balance that’s quite neutral and responsive to line adjustments mid-corner. All of which would make the Lexus quite a compelling car to drive if it weren’t for its lack of outright performance and often frustrating power delivery.

As it is, the CT200h drives like a car with a chip on its shoulder. It’s desperate to convince you that it’s youthful and sporty, when actually all you’re really looking for from it is peace and quiet.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Lexus CT

Vastly more important than the CT200h’s entry-level price is its low CO2 emissions of 94g/km. This used to free it from road tax and the London congestion charge, and qualify it for the Government’s 10 percent benefit-in-kind company car tax band.

However, new WLTP emissions testing and changes to road tax means that's no longer the case. Facelifted 2018 CTs produce 97g/km of CO2, pushing up first year VED to £115 and benefit-in-kind band to 20 percent.

It makes most sense as a company car

Because it emits less than 110g/km of CO2, fleet managers can write down 100 percent of the car’s value against corporation tax – an advantage that many employers are now passing on to drivers in part, with larger company car allowances for sub-110g vehicles. Plus, it escapes the 10 percent surcharge applied to diesel vehicles.

By choosing the Lexus instead of a less-efficient rival, company car drivers who pay 40 percent income tax could save more than £1000 a year on their tax bill.

So considering contract hire and company car tax together, a CT200h could be even cheaper for a fleet driver to run than a 1.4-litre turbocharged Vauxhall Astra – even though the Astra is several thousand pounds cheaper at list price.

Where the CT200h probably won’t save so much is at the pump. During our test, it returned just over 45mpg overall, and 51.8mpg on our touring route. That’s about average for a car of this size with a 2.0-litre diesel engine, but sufficiently far from Lexus’s 68.9mpg official claim to be disappointing.

Residual values are a little disappointing, too, hovering in the low 40 percents after three years and an average mileage. BMWs and Audis do better.

On the flipside, the standard kit list is generous on all models (as is quality), while Lexus’s position as a consistent leader in the JD Power satisfaction survey shows that you shouldn’t experience any problems, but if you do, you’ll be royally looked after by your Lexus dealer.

 

VERDICT

3 star Lexus CT

Having given the Toyota Prius a glowing review, you may be wondering why the better-appointed Lexus CT200h - with its broadly similar price - receives less praise. Well, buyers of premium cars have loftier expectations and Lexus has fundamentally misjudged what they really want from a car like the CT200h.

This compact luxury hatchback has many of the refinements of an appealing executive option, and its credentials as a business car are undeniable. Put simply it will save the user and their company a great deal of money compared to a similarly expensive executive hatch.

Lexus has produced a car attempting to be sporty and luxurious, but has achieved neither

You’ll also enjoy a handsomely appointed cabin and plenty of kit, although even the more upmarket models suffer with Lexus’s infuriating Remote Touch multi-function controller.

Ultimately, however, its drivetrain will be too one-dimensional for many used to the flexibility of modern premium diesel technology.

Our main criticism, though, is the over-firm, unsettled ride that’s at odds with the general nature of the car. As a refreshing alternative to the BMW 1 SeriesAudi A3 and the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, the CT200h should take advantage of its sumptuous cabin and refined drivetrain to offer something away from the norm.

Instead, in its desire to make the CT200h sporty, it has created something of a mishmash – a car that handles well, but without the power to make the most of it.

If Lexus’s objective was to make the CT200h drive differently from a Toyota Prius, it has succeeded, but it has failed to produce a car with a coherent or harmonious driving experience.

 

Steve Cropley

Steve Cropley Autocar
Title: Editor-in-chief

Steve Cropley is the oldest of Autocar’s editorial team, or the most experienced if you want to be polite about it. He joined over 30 years ago, and has driven many cars and interviewed many people in half a century in the business. 

Cropley, who regards himself as the magazine’s “long stop”, has seen many changes since Autocar was a print-only affair, but claims that in such a fast moving environment he has little appetite for looking back. 

He has been surprised and delighted by the generous reception afforded the My Week In Cars podcast he makes with long suffering colleague Matt Prior, and calls it the most enjoyable part of his working week.

Lexus CT 2011-2020 First drives