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Car reviews - Lexus - CT - 200h F-Sport

Launch Story

Lexus logo15 Jul 2011

By RON HAMMERTON

LEXUS might think twice before inviting the global motoring media to test drive one of its pre-production prototypes in future.

Such an event last year resulted in a swag of unkind words about the Japanese prestige brand’s first four-cylinder compact hatchback, the hybrid CT200h, in particular its hot-rod-harsh ride quality and road noise.

Lexus points out that the test cars driven in France had hand-welded bodies with prototype suspension calibrations and even prototype tyres from Yokohama.

In the end, however, maybe the journalists with their sharp pencils might have done Lexus a favour, helping to focus the spotlight of scrutiny on potential shortcomings of an all-important car that needs everything in its favour to go head-to-head with the best in the business, such as the BMW 1 Series and Audi A3.

Certainly, a test drive over some of the coarsest of coarse-chip bitumen roads in a production CT200h at the Australian media launch revealed that Lexus engineers have addressed the tyre roar problem of the pre-release beta models in the intervening six months since the Paris fiasco.

The CT200h skipped through the Victorian countryside with commendable aural suppression, wrought, Lexus admits, by a little more last-minute insulation massaging.

Some might say that a finely crafted body shouldn’t need such mechanical contrivances to suppress body resonance, but if it works, do it. Some other Japanese car-makers could surely use it.

The other issue that was raised at the Paris event was the teeth-rattling suspension – presumably an attempt by Lexus to match the pin-sharp handling of its Euro rivals.

We are pleased to report that Lexus has addressed this also – sort of. The standard suspension setting is firm but passable on the Luxury specification car we drove, although we can see why Lexus Australia says the CT200h will appeal to a new audience, as the average current Lexus owner is likely to wonder when the ride plushness went.

The sportier setting for the F Sport version is still verging on uncomfortable on rough roads. The word ‘go-kart’ was used by the Lexus chief engineer in his media presentation, and he was not far wrong.

Nevertheless, Lexus has turned a Corolla-sized hatchback with a just-adequate 100kW of Prius power into an entertaining drive. The word ‘engaging’ was also used in the Lexus presentation, and that is also appropriate.

Flat cornering and nimble steering are hallmarks of the CT200h on windy roads, although whether this command of the corners is lost on a 75hp hatchback is a question that can only be answered by the buying public.

Certainly, such spirited driving in Sport mode – one of four selectable driving modes on the petrol-electric powertrain – is unlikely to do a lot for the fuel economy, which on our two bursts of about 60km on a mix of urban and rural roads averaged in the first instance 6.4 litres per 100km, and then 5.8L/100km, according to the on-board fuel watcher.

Neither leg came close to the claimed 4.1L/100km for a combined cycle, but few cars ever match the lofty laboratory claims when they hit the real world – or the unreal world of media launches.

The CT200h is, however, commendably efficient compared with all but the most thrifty diesel cars or, indeed, its first cousin, the Toyota Prius, from which it borrows much of its hybrid drivetrain, including the 1.8-litre Atkinson-cycle petrol engine.

However, the CT200h gets the third generation of this powertrain, with more bells and whistles to enhance the driving performance. It still, however, provides the disconnected experience of the CVT transmission, with the right boot out of synch with the noise emanating from under the bonnet.

Like other Toyota hybrids, even the locally made Camry Hybrid, pressing the start button does no more than light up the dash instruments and put the powertrain on notice.

Selecting reverse on the unique, chrome-finished gear knob – a function that requires some practice for the uninitiated – still fails to excite the petrol engine as the car glides backwards on electric motivation.

In EV mode – selected by pushing a console button – the CT200h also glides forward silently on electrons, at least until the car hits 45km/h when a slight judder signals the petrol engine coming to life.

The default setting for these drive modes is Normal, which basically splits the difference between Eco – which helps to curb voltage to the motor, as well as the air-conditioning – and Sport, which unleashes all 650 volts on the electric motor for more spirited driving.

If you get the impression that Sport mode provides a driving experience akin to a blast in a Volkswagen Golf R, we must disappoint, as forward propulsion is no more than average for a hatchback of this size.

However, the extra heft to the electric steering is noticeable and welcome, and the CT200h driver is rarely going to be embarrassed in city traffic.

In Eco mode, progress is best described as leisurely, but keen hybrid fanciers who select this car are unlikely to worry too much, as they probably will fall under the trance of the automotive sport of the 21st century – trying to set a new low-fuel consumption mark.

This pastime is made a little easier in the high-spec CT200h models that are equipped with an innovative dial that can transform from tacho to fuel consumption meter via some electronic wizardry. Even the tacho needle becomes the wand on the fuel-guzzle-o-meter, tut-tutting at driver excesses.

The centre console houses a mouse-like control to master various functions such as the sav-nav on the three top models, along with a twist knob for the Eco-Normal-Sport drive modes.

The test cars also came equipped with a bizarre tack-on smart-phone holder, which although functional, smacks of another last-minute revision.

Of course, we have sympathy for car-makers trying to keep up with this week’s latest personal communication fad. Where’s the iPad holder?

Driver ergonomics is a strong point of the CT200h, with a suitably chunky steering wheel with plenty of adjustment making it relatively easy for drivers to get comfortable.

Rear seat room is adequate, rather than spacious, and luggage room – cramped by the space-sucking hybrid battery under the boot floor, is a bit shallow. That, however, is the compromise nature of the hybrid car.

In the end, that’s what the Lexus CT200h is – a well-crafted small luxury hybrid car. If Lexus was trying to mix it with Euro luxo hatches, then it has missed the mark a smidge in all but refinement.

But maybe it was just aiming for buyers wanting a keenly price $39,990 hybrid hatch with Lexus quality. For those people, it is right on the money, as long as they don’t mind go-kart suspension.

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