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Lexus CT200h review: can the hybrid hatch still compete?

£30,330 when new

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Car specifications

Budget
£30,330
Brake horsepower
136bhp
Fuel consumption
68.9mpg
0–62 mph
10.30s
CO2
94g/km
Max speed
112Mph
Insurance Group
19E

Sort of given the verdict away before you started, haven’t you?

Yes, but there’s no point holding you in suspense about what the Lexus CT 200h is like. For a start, it’s six years old now. Normally, seven years is a car’s life-cycle, so we’d never revisit a car this close to the shotgun-behind-the-barn moment.  But, ready for 2018, Lexus has given the CT200h some TLC. So, we meet again.

What’s new?

It’s been restyled with sharper headlights (spot the running lights now at the top, like an angry eyebrow) and more aggressive vent motifs set into the bumpers. 

The range has been slimmed down from seven trim variants to five, and inside there’s a much larger infotainment screen (10.3in plays 7.0in) on everything but the base model. That starts at £23,495, or £299 a month. The top ‘Premier’ model we drove with all the toys costs £30,495.

That’s barely a facelift. That’s more anti-wrinkle cream and make-up.

True. What it shows is that Lexus thinks – knows, in fact – this car is still relevant. And getting more pertinent by the day, really. Back in 2011, the brand-spanking new, hybrid-only CT200h was tricky to make a case for, as turbodiesels ruled the hatchback company car kingdom. The world lived in a diesel dictatorship.

Now, dieselgate launched a coup on dervs from within the party, and all of a sudden., diesel sales have tumbled from 51 per cent of European car sales at their peak to sub 40 per cent right now, and falling. 

So you’re saying this is the time for the Lexus CT to come good?

Exactly. Especially as there aren’t that may posh, premium-badge hybrids to choose from. There’s the Audi A3 e-tron, which we like, and its rebodied twin, the VW Golf GTE, which suffers slightly for its ‘I’m a real hot hatch honest’ pretensions. So we’d have the Audi. Except, it costs £36,040, or £33,540 after the £2,500 plug-in grant gets deducted. Advantage Lexus.

And I don’t ever plug the Lexus into a wall, do I?

Yep. In fact, Lexus is slightly cheekily marketing the CT as ‘the hybrid you never have to plug in’ on some posters. The Audi and VW are both plug-in hybrids that depend on drivers juicing them from a socket to make the most of their holier-than-thou engineering. 

Use them to that advantage and you might never hear the engine switch on in months. Get caught short without a plug and you’re in a world of lardy batteries and 30mpg cruising. 

I thought you were here to talk about the Lexus…

Sorry, just scene-setting. Point is, while there are lots of hybrid SUVs and electric city cars on the market, the bread-and-butter premium family hatch hasn’t really caught the hybrid bug yet. Six years on, the Lexus CT200h is still one of a minority. Only now, its time has come. Cometh the hour, cometh the mild-hybrid, near-70mpg, 94g/km CO2 fountains of win. 

Except…

One of the CT’s problems has been around since the day we met it: the ride’s too firm. This is an urban-focused car. It’s relatively small, and it’s a CVT hybrid than only runs on battery power at crawling speeds. It is closer to being a pepper grinder or a hat stand than it is a hot hatch. Yet, because someone in a marketing collective think-tank somewhere has decided that it should also be a sporty car, the ride isn’t pleasant in A Town. 

Lexus says the revised CT has more body welds to make the structure stiffer, so the springs have been adjusted and a new anti-roll bar fitted. In short, this hasn’t helped.

Another sporty trait the car could thoroughly do without is the freakishly heavy steering. The CT places a prominent mode dial front and centre on the button-festooned dashboard, offering the usual Lexus traits: Eco, Normal, Sport and Sport Plus. Twizzling said knob will make the dials glow different colours and display different graphics, and either energises or pacifies the powertrain. But it won’t lighten up the steering’s sheer heft. And that’s annoying when you’re parking, or turning around in a tight street, or not going very quickly. 

Yet, what’s thoroughly unsporty is the performance. 0-62mph takes 10.3sec, which is slow. But getting the CT moving with urgency demands a protracted prod of the throttle, so it’s not as responsive in an urban dogfight as a proper EV or a conventional turbocharged car. Be prepared for plenty of opportunists to shoot into the gaps that open up before the CT as it picks its way through sticky traffic.

The ultra-perceptive among you will have noticed these are common obstacles when in A Town.

What else?

The CT’s also showing its age in its packaging. Batteries have got smaller and less obtrusive since this car was being developed in the mid-to-late 2000s, and as a result, the CT has a cramped cabin. The boot musters 375 litres if you include the underfloor storage box, but if you’ve got cargo you can’t split, it’s less commodious. 

The dash layout, as usual for a Lexus, is wacky and manga and interesting, but the sheer amount of structure that looms around you, plus the car’s poor visibility, makes it feel a bit thick and cumbersome. The 10.3-inch screen on most models is usefully bigger than before, but the nav graphics remain poor and however big the screen gets, the mouse-operated system is still damn tricky to operate. 

I’m sure it actually demands more crucial eye-off-the-road time than a touchscreen, because inputs need to be so accurate and the haptic feedback on the mouse itself is haphazard. 

 

Is the CT200h irredeemable?

No. As usual for a Lexus, it’s finished to a very high standard. It’s extremely quiet for a CVT-equipped car. Real-world urban economy is safely into the forties for a gallon, and it’s simply more futureproof than a diesel. But while the hybrid hatchback’s time has come, time has caught up with the CT200h. Next time Lexus tries to execute an entry-level hybrid, it might be a gamechanger for the class. As long as it’s pleasant to drive where it ought to thrive. In town. 

And in the meantime?

Don’t buy a CT200h. But do have a look at a Toyota Prius. Seriously, I know it’s catastrophically ugly, but by abandoning any ideas of sportiness, the current Prius is such a comfortable car. It rides with a luxuriant pliancy. Its cabin is scalloped, spacious and airy. The seating position is low, the seats themselves supremely comfortable, and it’s real-world economical if you’re in town. So much so, that it feels like a better engineered, more premium product than the ageing CT200h.

Didn’t see that coming, did you?

What do you think?

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