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First Oz drive: Lexus hones the hybrid hatch

Baby hatched: Lexus has unleashed its smallest model, the CT200h hybrid hatchback, but only after last-minute refinements.

Baby Lexus CT200h receives tweaks to iron out wrinkles ahead of sales launch

28 Mar 2011

LEXUS tweaked the production version of its new hybrid hatchback, the CT200h, to refine its ride quality and reduce noise levels after rough-hewn prototypes of what it describes as the world’s first luxury compact hybrid car were severely criticised for harshness after an early test drive by the motoring media in France last year.

Stung by the less than flattering assessment of the new baby of its range, Lexus wound back the sporty suspension a notch, added more noise deadening and made other refinements in the final showroom car to try to take the edge off the less-than-plush – and most un-Lexus-like – ride quality.

The CT200h’s chief engineer, Osumu Sadakata, told the Australian media launch of the Lexus range's new entry level model that the message was heard loud and clear in Japan.

“I want to stress that we have heard the feedback from that launch,” he said.

“In fact, I sent my second in charge to Australia to test for himself the vehicle on local roads, with particular attention to NVH.” Nevetheless, Mr Sadakata said Australia was getting the same global suspension tune as other markets.

Lexus Australia, which supplied its own feedback on suggested revisions to the new package in the development stage, says the result is “truly a breakthrough vehicle” that melds Lexus luxury with 4.1 litres per 100km fuel economy – just short of the related Toyota Prius’s 3.9L/100km – and carbon dioxide emissions rated at 95 grams per kilometre, again just short of the lighter Prius’s benchmark 89g/km.

31 center imageFrom top: Lexus CT200h Prestige, Luxury, Sports Luxury, F Sport, Lexus Hybrid Drive engine, Sports Luxury interior.

Launched in a nationally televised, panel-punishing celebrity challenge race series at the Australian F1 grand prix in Melbourne at the weekend, the CT200h is now on sale in four specifications – $39,990 Prestige, $48,990 Luxury, $49,900 F-Sport and top of the range $55,900 Sport Luxury.

Lexus claims the CT200h will open the Lexus brand to a whole new market, undercutting the previous most affordable Lexus, the IS250, by almost $16,000 and bringing the price of entry to Lexus hybrid motoring down from $89,788 – the price of the Lexus RX450h SUV – by more than half.

In doing so, it has put the squeeze on the list price of the $39,900 Prius, with which is shares much of its driveline technology. Toyota Australia says watch this space on Prius pricing.

Even before launch, Lexus claimed to have received about 300 customer orders for the CT200h, assuring a sell-out success on the stock received so far from Japan.

It hopes the smallest Lexus – the first four-cylinder model sold by the upmarket Toyota brand in this country – will join the IS mid-sized sedan and cabrio and RX SUV on the mass-selling list for the brand, with perhaps 2000 sales a year.

Lexus says among the world firsts on the CT200h are an electronic tachometer that transforms into an ‘ecometer’ to help the driver preserve fuel, although only on the upper spec models.

As well, it is also said to be the first compact luxury car to get a pre-collision safety system that battens down the hatches by pumping up the brakes and tightening seat belts, among other things, when radar sensors detect an imminent smash.

Again, this feature is only available to the well-heeled who can tick the boxes for the up-spec models.

But all CT200h buyers will get the 100kW petrol-electric hybrid powertrain – no standard petrol-engine versions are planned – with four driving modes: EV, ECO, Normal and Sport.

Up to 45km/h, the CT200h can operate exclusively on electric motivation from the 60kW electric motor, for up to 2km if the nickel-metal hydride battery is fully charged.

Once petrol power is required from the 73kW/142Nm 1.8-litre Atkinson cycle four-cylinder engine, the system defaults to Normal mode, which uses a mix of petrol and electric power to deliver drive to the front wheels through a complex set of electronically-controlled planetary gears that acts as a form of continuously variable transmission.

Eco mode can be selected by the twist of a console knob, electronically backing off the throttle inputs for what Lexus calls ‘relaxed driving style’, while also rationing the air-conditioning for added efficiency. In this mode, the electric motor sucks just 500 volts from the battery.

But if push comes to shove and acceleration is needed urgently, pressing the accelerator to the floor will override the electronic nanny, allowing full 650-volt power.

Sport mode, also selected by the console knob, beefs up the throttle responses by lifting voltage to the max, while also adjusting the electric power steering for less assistance and more feel, reducing the incidence of idle-stop when the vehicle comes to a halt and re-calibrating the ESC and traction control for more leeway in spirited driving.

In Sport mode, the CT200h is said to be capable of accelerating from zero to 100km/h in 10.3 seconds, while in Eco mode, range on the 45-litre tank of premium petrol is said to be a tick under 1100km.

While the CT200h’s body is reported to be based on the platform of Toyota’s workaday Corolla (although Lexus doesn’t say this), Lexus is at pains to point out the many differences, including much steel gusseting, additional crossmembers and more, including the use of high-strength steels.

To help rein in the weight to a reasonable 1370kg – a few kilos heavier than the heaviest Corolla – aluminium is used extensively, on the bonnet, rear hatch and bumper reinforcement rails, as well as in brake callipers and suspension parts.

Speaking of suspension, the CT200h gets a compact double-wishbone rear setup with a trailing arm – a far cry from the Corolla’s prosaic torsion-beam arrangement.

The MacPherson strut front suspension is also unique to the CT200h, using an industry first stabiliser bar integrated into the suspension member for better performance.

The F Sport model – which Lexus Australia says could be its best-selling model – gets pumped up springs and shockers – courtesy of Showa – for sportier handling.

To assist with the sportier handling while also cutting vibration resonating through the body, Lexus also went to another motorcycle pal, Yamaha, for unique body dampers on the front and back of the top two Sports models.

Under the bonnet, the damper looks like a conventional strut bar, stretching across the engine bay from the tops of the strut towers, except that it has a gas damper midway to absorb vibration.

The CT200h uses LED lighting extensively – 89 in all – to cut electricity consumption. These include LED headlamps on the F-Sport model.

Aerodynamic tweaks that contribute to a sound 0.29Cd drag co-efficient include an aerodynamically shaped muffler on the underside of the car, as well as extensive underside covers.

Despite the hybrid battery lurking under the boot floor, luggage space is a reasonable 375 litres, opening up to 985 litres with the split-fold seats folded down.

Inside, the base model gets cloth seats, while leather is standard on Luxury and above. A $3000 leather option pack on the base models also delivers 17-inch wheels, front seats heaters, reversing camera (screened in the rear-view mirror).

Eight airbags are standard, including front knee-protecting airbags, while 16-inch alloy wheels are standard on the base Prestige variant. Luxury, F-Sport and Sports Luxury versions get larger diameter 17-inch alloys shod with Yokahama 215/45 tyres.

A space-saver spare tyre is standard.

The three upper-spec models get sat-nav on the large LCD screen that rises from the dash on start up. That screen also displays the reversing camera image on these models.

As well as the pre-safe crash preparation system, the Luxury Sport gets active cruise control.

The CT200h is covered by Lexus’s four-year, 100,000km warranty, with an extra eight-year warranty on the hybrid battery.

&nbsp 2011 Lexus CT200h pricing: &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp
Luxury $48,990
F Sport $49,900
Sports Luxury $55,900

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