Wheels

Tested: Sporty(ish) Lexus CT200h

2011-09-20 07:37
Hybrids and green-friendly cars, despite advancements made to the technology which powers them, continue to have a reputation of being expensive, ugly and boring. Lexus decided to do away with preconceived notions of what we’ve come to expect from hybrids with its CT200h hybrid hatchback.

I got the chance to drive the F-Sport variant but was left feeling “meh” and underwhelmed, here’s why…

DESIGN

Design-wise, the car looks likes the love child of a Toyota Auris, a Prius and a Subaru Impreza… with a Nissan Tiida thrown in to complete the gruesome tryst. It’s not pretty car, at best it’s rather tame in terms of styling and just serves to reinforce the stigma that hybrids/green cars are eyesores. However it's certainly different and driving the CT200h will definitely turn heads; and if you’re saving the environment who cares if they snicker.

Lexus has always done vehicles painted in white rather well, though there is a garish pearlescent yellow/green option available just in case you want to drive the “it’s not just another boring hybrid” point home.

DRIVING IT


It’s the most interesting car I’ve driven all year as you’re essentially driving three vehicles rolled up into one hybrid hatchback; a battery vehicle, an eco-friendly (albeit sedate) hatch and a sporty(ish) petrol hot hatch. Each of the CT200h driving modes can be accessed by a rotating dial and changes between them are slick and as easy as rotating to one side or the other depending on your driving needs.

In eco mode the CT200h tries its best to conserve fuel by maximising the electric motor. In normal and sport mode you’re not as frugal but you’ll get to your destination (a little) quicker using more petrol power. All modes are denoted by blue or red lighting around the dials; blue for the green-friendly modes,e red when you’re accessing the CT200H dark side (Think HAL from '2001: A Space Odyssey').

While driving I tended to switch between the CT200h’s personalities; green-friendly hippy when driving around town and angry Greenpeace warrior when on the highway.

Accessing sport mode stiffens the suspension and steering to provide a sporty hatch experience though the gearbox ultimately ruins it… more on that later. Acceleration is improved, allowing you to get off the mark quicker albeit in a kart fashion. The CT200h handles bends rather well and the adaptive steering and suspension allows a spirited drive along twisties. The suspension is comfortable enough to negate irregular road surfaces but tends to be rather harsh at high speed.

The Electric Vehicle mode (EV) can be activated via a switch provided you stay under 50km/h and the battery is on full charge.

Turning on the ignition soon became a party trick as I explained to passengers that although the vehicle is complety silent (save road noise), the engine is on. It is eery to be driving in a vehicle, at least in electric mode, and be able to creep up on pedestrians. Mind you, I often wondered what the future holds for blind and deaf pedestrians as vehicle engines are silenced. ('The Silence of the Cams', perhaps- Ed).

Overall, if you’re familiar with online gaming, you’ll feel like you’re playing a mini-game, the aim of which is to drive as frugally as possible while watching in which “zone” you’re driving in. I spent quite a bit of time perfecting the art of staying within the Eco and where possible electric zones and feeling like I had failed the game if I used too much petrol.

I didn’t find it distracting and if anything the whole experience will teach how to conserve as much fuel as possible, though don’t spend more time glancing at your screen than observing the road in ahead.

Fair enough to make the most of the EV mode you’ll be restricted to a city or suburb as you’re not going to be crawling at 50km/h on a highway. Oh, and you won't quite manage two kilometres before the battery goes out and the petrol engine kicks in to revive it.

Lexus CT200H

DARKER SHADE OF GREEN: It's may not be easy on the eyes but the CT200h offers an engaging drive.

Then there’s the gearbox. In either Eco/Electric or normal mode, changes are blissfully smooth and seamless. Although the engine is rather sedate the effortless gearshifts and handling translate to an excellent ride.

Slip it into Sport mode and you’re reduced to clumsy novice driver unable or unwilling to shift through gears. It’s as though to get more oomph out of the engine the Japanese automaker, understandably, tweaked ratios but the final result is a gearbox which flounders at optimal shifts.

If there were paddle shifts or a semi-auto option, things would’ve been different, but since you’re lacking both you’re left feeling like an overenthusiastic learner with no regard for the engine - or conserving fuel. The CT200h is capable of achieving a very frugal 4.4-litres/100km and after messing around with the sport mode I managed to achieve a fuel consumption figure of 5.5l/100km.

Compared to the standard "S" version, power output is identical and the main differences are cosmetic such as the Sunroof, rear spoiler and sportpedals.

INTERIOR


Inside is where I’d expect Luxury to meet practicality; instead, it’s where luxury meets tacky. The interior is a hotchpotch of opulent trim, as to be expected in a Lexus, and plastic. Take the centre console: there's leather stitching around the outside of the console but rough plastic controls and dials throughout. The steering wheel – leather stitching with flimsy plastic buttons; fascia – soft leather but only in certain areas with mostly hard panels throughout.

It all seems as if Lexus is trying to appeal to both the boy racer and luxury sedan crowd but ends up pleasing neither.

Even the satnav seems rather dated what with its windows 3.1 era mouse pointer and large 386 PC type mouse.

The seats are comfortable with plenty of room for rear passengers. The boot space is adequate and the CT200H is perfect as a daily runabout made even more so if you’re commuting in the city as you can take full advantage of the EV mode.

OVERALL

The Lexus CT200h is an ambitious attempt to create a niche in the luxury hybrid hatch market. The trouble is they’ve overreached themselves trying to please two uniquely different crowds and ended up with a vehicle that doesn’t excel in either luxury or sporty appeal.\

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad car by any means, save for the gearbox in sport mode, and as a hybrid it performs rather well. It’s just that, for its price, and this goes for all hybrids, I don’t see the need for the (expensive) luxury or saving on fuel compared to what you’re getting. I can’t see any boy-racers picking this one up say over a sporty (albeit fuel guzzling) hot hatch and there’s just not enough opulence and high quality trim available for luxury owners who can fork out more than R400k.

If you can afford the price tag, are keen on saving fuel and doing your bit for the environment but want a (little) bit of extra oomph, the Lexus CT200H is for you. It’s not as boring as a Prius, not as good-looking as a Honda CRZ and not as sporty as a conventional hot hatch.

I’m actually excited by the CT200h - it serves as a precursor to luxury hybrid hatchbacks to come.

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