x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Lexus CT200h is the economical hybrid drive for the younger set

Road Test: It may be a good-looking, mid-level hybrid, but Neil Vorano finds the Lexus CT200h lacks sporting credentials.

Under the body of the Lexus is basically the running gear found in the staid Prius: a 98hp, 1.8L petrol engine coupled with an electric motor. Satish Kumar / The National
Under the body of the Lexus is basically the running gear found in the staid Prius: a 98hp, 1.8L petrol engine coupled with an electric motor. Satish Kumar / The National

The new Lexus CT200h is one of those rare cars that I actually want to drive at a reasonable pace. In the brief time I spent with this luxury hybrid, I found myself actually focusing on its fuel economy, dulling my usually heavy right foot and content with following the speed limits; well, more so than usual. It was actually quite a calming experience.

Which is, I'm sure, exactly what Lexus doesn't want to hear about the CT200h. Why? Because, according to the company line, this is a sporty car.

Hmmm, really? After just a few days, I can definitively say that this is not a sporty car. It can be many things - luxurious, well appointed, economical - but sporty does not enter into a driver's mind when the throttle is mashed.

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Let's face it, any car that goes from zero-to-60kph in a tick under 10 seconds (9.8 to be exact) is not a sports car, nor a sporty car; it's not even a mildly exciting car. So why does Toyota, the parent company of Lexus, insist on hammering this point home in all of its advertising for this new hybrid?

It's because of the kids. No, not the ones that are spilling their sippy cups in the back seat of your minivan; the older ones, the ones that have a job and a bit of expendable cash, the up-and-comers, the ones that think hybrid cars are "cool". These are the ones that Lexus wants to get into its fold; you know, start them off young and get them to work their way up to the more expensive models later. But the company needed a hybrid to slot above the Toyota Prius and below the Lexus LS600h; hence the CT200h.

But if you rise above the hyperbole, beyond the expectations that will never be met, you will find an overall nice car to be in.

I mean, look at it: Lexus does make good-looking cars, and this one - even in hatchback form - is no exception. It certainly looks sporty, with its mean-looking front end, its high, muscular rear, and all those sharp creases. The lines come together rather aggressively; plus, the dark red metallic paint of this tester was extraordinary, especially glinting in the sunlight.

Underneath that sexy body is basically the running gear found in the staid Prius: a 98hp, 1.8L petrol engine coupled with an electric motor to produce 134hp and 142Nm of torque; now that really doesn't sound sporty, does it?

The power for this front-wheel driver goes through a continuously variable transmission, a box that has no gears, per se, but uses instead two pulleys and a belt. In theory, it's meant to be much more efficient than a traditional gearbox because it keeps the engine in its optimum torque range at all times.

And that may be true, but what it also does is kill any kind of sporting nature the car might have; under heavy duress, the engine reaches around 6,000rpm and stays there; you feel it needs to shift up a cog, but that's how it works. It creates quite an unnerving clamour as the speedo needle climbs.

Having said that, the drivetrain combination delivers exceptional fuel economy. Lexus states its combined number at 5.6L/100km, and this is a time where an automaker isn't stretching the truth. In various traffic scenarios, on the motorway and in town, the on-board computer registered fuel economy numbers around 5- and 6L/100km, with better economy in town than at higher speeds. Not surprising, because the electric motor kicks in at lower speeds and helps get the car off from a stop.

What also helps the economy is the CT200h's start/stop feature, which turns off the petrol engine when the car isn't moving and instantly starts it again when needed. It's a seamless process, and the car is so quiet - as a true Lexus should be - that sometimes it's hard to tell when the engine is working and when it's been put to sleep.

Inside is really one of the best interiors Lexus has designed; at least, it's one of the most stylish, a coddling yet business-like setting to do some driving in. The dash is clean and devoid of the myriad of buttons so prevalent in modern cars, with just the basics to do the job. The console is highlighted by an elegant, delicate chrome gear selector that takes but a slight shift with a couple of fingers to find your gear - much more sophisticated than sporty. And controlling the sat/nav and audio system involves a simple mouse-like control that falls right at hand and works far simpler than other similar systems.

Also on the console, there's a button to run in electric mode only, but that depends on the charge of the battery and your speed and acceleration (I couldn't get over 20kph or so before the petrol engine kicked in). Also, a large, rotating knob selects three different modes for driving: eco, normal and sport; the eco mode dulls engine response, forcing a more sedate manner of driving; it also turns down the air conditioning to save energy. Normal is, well, normal, and the sport mode sharpens steering and throttle response and releases the system's full 650 volts, as well as reduces the abruptness of the traction and stability control systems. That all sounds fun, but in reality, without a decent amount of power, it doesn't exactly give you goose pimples.

The gauge cluster is notable, too, with large, luminescent clocks. In eco and normal modes, one of the gauges displays battery power and charging, but switch to sport mode and that same gauge changes to a tachometer, with the colour of the cluster going from blue to red. It's a cool feature.

The seats are comfortable, the steering wheel thick and sporty, and the amenities in this Prestige model fairly lavish. Rear cargo area is hampered somewhat by the big battery underneath the floor, though.

The handling is good if not great, to say the same for the ride, which is a little on the firm side. But overall, I found the CT200h to be a good car for different reasons. You could buy it for its eco credentials; you could buy it for its entry level luxury. Just don't buy it for its sportiness.