What is it?
A mid-size hybrid hatchback by Lexus, aiming to tempt buyers away from an Audi A3, a BMW 1-series or, as a new additional spanner in the corporate plan, an Alfa Giulietta. It uses the petrol-electric powertrain ofthe Toyota Prius and Auris HSD, driving the front wheels of a car whose design is a visual collision of a five-year-old Lexus styling sketch and a current Subaru Impreza. Uk prices will start at £23,485 when sales start next January.
The point of the CT200h (the initials stand for Compact Tourer) is that its official CO2 rating is just 96g/km, so all sorts of charges and taxes will be low or non-existent. It's the first hybrid in the 'small premium' class, a class beloved of marketing people but whose real boundaries are fuzzy, being mainly in the mind.
It's the usual 1.8-litre Prius-type engine whose particular spread of variable valve timing makes it very fuel-efficient but not very sharp. The engine manages just 99bhp, but the electric motor can produce up to 82bhp provided Sport mode is selected. These two outputs never occur at the same time, however; maximum combined power is 134bhp.
Power reaches the wheels via a CVT transmission, and the CT200h can run for a short time on electric power alone at up to 30mph provided you accelerate gently. New to Toyota/Lexus hybrids is a Sport setting. Here, the power-consumption/regenerative-braking meter morphs into a rev-counter, using the same needle but with a new scale with a red-mist background. The motor is now fed up to 650 volts instead of 500, the steering becomes weightier, and the traction and stability systems loosen up. In this mode the CT200h can hit 62mph in a somewhat tardy 10.3 seconds.
An innovation in this class of car is the 'performance damper', one of which bridges the suspension turrets at each end. It damps body vibrations to improve refinement, and the engineers claim it even improves the clarity of the (impressive) stereo system. Each Yamaha-made damper is a very high-pressure gas-filled unit, and its piston displacement is typically under a millimetre.
What’s it like to drive?
Rather dull, unfortunately. For all the claims of being 'authentically Lexus', this is certainly no mini-iSF. You sit low – the hip-point is lower than that of an Auris, a car with whose underpinnings it actually shares very little despite superficial similarities including a double-wishbone rear end – so the first impression is promisingly, er, sporty. A busy, fidgety ride and quick steering add to that superficial impression.
Soon it's clear that the responses are just a bit wooden, and there's little keenness to alter cornering lines with the throttle. Transparency, flow and interactivity are in disappointingly short supply. Step-off from a standstill is pretty brisk but there's little energy beyond 80mph, even in Sport mode. There's also an Eco mode, with Normal in between, but the dofferences between all three aren't nearly as marked as they are in a Honda CR-Z.
Nor is the refinement anything special, with road roar and the often-revving engine both vocal. Chief engineer Osamu Sadakata says Lexus is considering a 2.0-litre turbo engine, which is exactly what the CT200h needs. This should be a car which makes economical driving fun, which it currently doesn't, and it needs a more special engine to distance it from Toyotas.
Its cabin seems oddly dated and cluttered, with too few quality touches to to convince us that opulence is innate rather than added on. A leather top to the instrument cluster and a strip of satin wood aren't enough, especially when the rear doors don't even have padding on their waist rails. The leather seats are comfortable enough, though, and the angled centre console's switchgear has something of the flight deck about it as well as a neat 'mouse' for navigating the information screen.
How does it compare?
For running costs, probably very well although real-world fuel figures will be far off the claimed 74mpg official average. About half that, we'd guess, if the CT200h is driven with vigour.
For enjoying the drive, you'd be better off with one of the rivals especially as they have themselves become very fuel-efficient. As for the way the CT200h looks, the angles in the rear pillar are quite troubling and it's, well, a bit of a mess overall.
Anything else I need to know?
It's quite roomy in the back and there's a decent boot, even though the battery pack is between the rear wheels. There are three trim levels: SE-I, SE-L and SE-L Premier. Make of those what you will. Let me just say that it's been a while since the partisan words at the presentation and the reality of the car have been so far apart.