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Driven: New-look Lexus CT200h is sharper value

Boom goes the small-car: The Lexus CT 200h competes in a market segment that is up nearly 60 per cent in 2014, led by the Mercedes A-Class and Audi A3.

Premium-hybrid leader Lexus lobs updated CT200h into booming small-premium market

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Lexus logo7 Apr 2014

LEXUS Australia chief executive Sean Hanley says the company “did not even consider” cutting the starting price of its new-look CT200h petrol-electric hybrid hatch to match its German rivals.

Instead, the Japanese luxury brand has added substantially to the CT’s value equation by axing the previous base variant and cutting the former mid-range offering to the existing $39,990 (plus on-roads) starting price. This means, spec-for-spec, Lexus outguns its competition.

Launched this week, the slimmed-down CT range has a revised frontal design that brings with it Lexus’ polarising ‘spindle’ grille, new alloy wheels, a different suspension and steering tune, new switchgear, and reduced engine noise and general noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) levels.

The upgrade also brings more value and sharper prices across the range – reduced to three offerings.

Lexus has dropped the former entry-level Prestige variant while cutting the price of the mid-range Luxury by $7000, making it the new sub-$40,000 price leader.

This version also now has an upgraded reversing camera – meaning every single Lexus offering now has one as standard – a new 10-speaker audio system (up from six), a Remote Touch rotary multimedia controller on the transmission tunnel, rain-sensing windscreen wipers and daytime running lights.

The now mid-range F Sport is down $2000 to $48,990, and picks up a new black roof, larger rear spoiler and Lexus’ Enform embedded app suite operated by a mouse-type controller.

Finally, the flagship Sports Luxury is cut by $1000 to $56,990 and comes with new LED headlights, foglights, new seat trim and tinted glass.

Despite the value-adding, the CT does not match the sharp opening gambit from rivals Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz in the booming small-premium market (up 57.5 per cent in the first quarter), with the A3, 1 Series and A-Class each respectively kicking off at $35,990.

To the end of March, the A-Class and A3 have comprehensively outsold the Lexus, shifting 1301 (up 250 per cent) and 1022 (up 150.7 per cent) units respectively compared to the CT’s 264 sales (still up by 22.8 per cent). The 1 Series, in comparison, has 613 deliveries to its name (up 48.1 per cent).

Defending the new CT’s positioning, Mr Hanley said price-matching the Germans at the bottom end “wasn’t a consideration for us”.

“It gets back to carefully managing your brand,” he said. “I understand right now that luxury can enter transactionally sub-$35,000, sometimes sub-$30,000.

If you are about being number one in the luxury market perhaps that’s a space you’ll go to.

“But that’s not what Lexus is about. Sustainable growth, offer the best customer service and exciting cars. We believe that is a more sustainable growth strategy for our brand,” he said.

Perhaps also more important to Lexus are its excellent petrol-electric hybrid sales overall. Lexus is the only manufacturer to offer hybrid versions of a hatch, sedan and SUV across its range, with only the LX off-roader not available in such a configuration.

Lexus bills itself as a “luxury hybrid pioneer”, and wants 50 per cent of its sales to have a petrol-electric powertrain under the bonnet before 2018.

So far in 2013, its hybrid sales across the board are up around 30 per cent, outpacing the company’s overall sales growth of 8.4 per cent. So far this year, 42 per cent of all Lexus vehicles sold here are petrol-electric. It was four per cent in 2006.

Mr Hanley said the growth in hybrid sales is being driven by greater acceptance and choice. However, it is also worth pointing out that Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz – as well as Volvo with its V40 – prefer frugal diesel engines to hybrid drivetrains.

“The marked rise Lexus is experiencing in hybrid vehicle sales is being driven by the fact that the efficient drivetrain technology is well past ‘early adopter’ status and is now considered a viable, reliable and powerful alternative to internal combustion engines,” said Mr Hanley.

“Since 2012, Lexus has launched seven new or improved hybrid vehicles in Australia alone. Those vehicles have aided growth in overall hybrid sales and demonstrated our long-term commitment to hybrid technology.

“We expect as the new-look CT and other new hybrid models become available the proportion of overall hybrid sales will continue to rise, getting ever closer to our goal of 50 per cent of total sales.”

Lexus says the new CT has an additional 20 spot welds on the rear hatch, more body bonding on the wheelarches, and extra bracing on the rear floor and front cowl, all of which is said to make the body more rigid.

The company also claims to have undertaken 94 different measures to reduce NVH levels, making tweaks to the dash crossmember, tunnel reinforcement, bulkhead, rear inner rocker, roof silencer, pillars, side cowls, scuff panels and window glass. Finally, there is a so-called ‘silencer plate’ in the inlet duct and a repositioned rear engine mount.

Springs and shocks have been tuned to improve rough-road compliance, while the F Sport variant has a sportier tune with firmer damping. The electric steering system has been modified to suit the revised tuning, and also has new coupling nuts.

Under the bonnet is the familiar 73kW/142Nm 1.8-litre Atkinson-cycle VVT-i four-cylinder engine matched to a parallel hybrid system comprising an old-school nickel-metal hydride battery pack and a CVT transmission sending power to the front Yokohama-shod wheels.

System output is 100kW all up – enough to send the 1370kg hatchback from zero to 100km/h in 10.3 seconds. On the combined cycle, Lexus says to expect fuel consumption as low as 4.1 litres per 100km and CO2 emissions to be 95 grams per 100km.

Inside the cabin are a range or minor changes including a new IS-style 370mm-diameter steering wheel, upgraded TFT screen, second-generation Lexus Remote Touch multimedia controller, a new gearlever, revised trim, some different switches and soft-touch plastics on the console and elbow rest.

Standard equipment for all models has been improved and includes a reversing camera, eight airbags (including driver and front-passenger knee airbags), seatbelt warning monitor for all passengers, daytime running lights, electronically controlled brake system with ABS, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist, hill-start assist, anti-whiplash front seats and emergency flashing brake lights.

The CT has a maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating.

Lexus will sell you a host of numbered Enhancement Packs on Luxury and F Sport variants, bringing all manner of extra equipment for an additional outlay.

Starting with the Luxury, Pack 1 adds leather-accented interior, heated seats, 17-inch alloy wheels and foglamps for $3250, while Pack 4 includes digital radio, sat-nav, Lexus Enform connectivity system, a self-dimming internal mirror and a moon-roof for $9750.

In F Sport guise, Pack 1 adds a moon-roof for an extra $2500, while Pack 2 adds the moon-roof, adaptive cruise control, Lexus’ ‘Pre-Collision Safety System’, a smart key and a Mark Levinson audio system for $6500.

2014 Lexus CT 200h pricing*
Luxury$39,990
F Sport$48,990
Sports Luxury$56,990
*Excluding on-road costs

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