Could Lexus have finally made hybrids cool? Steve Vermeulen drives the new CT200h to find out.
Is there a more love it or hate it kind of proposition in the automotive world than Toyota’s hybrid development? On one hand, the lords of modern, commercial hybrid technology have a lot to be proud of. On the other, they have a lot to answer for. The Prius, deservingly, has become the poster child for what will inevitably revolutionise the automotive world forever with faultless (well, aside from over dramatized recalls) stepping stone technology that will lead into fully electric motoring within most of our lifetimes.
I applaud this aspect of the initiative; it is sheer brilliance that advances not just Toyota, but the industry as a whole, into a new era. But the really sad thing is its sheer brilliance is wrapped in the morose bodywork, appliance-like interior and dull driving characteristics of a car company that was at the back of the queue when excitement was being handed out.
Toyota’s luxury arm, Lexus, aims to change how we perceive mainstream hybrid vehicles with this, the CT200h. And it looks good.
Underneath it is still, give or take, a Prius. Same 1.8-litre, low compression petrol engine combined with a high torque electric motor developing a maximum output of 100kW and the ability to drive solely on electric energy alone. Of course, it still has a big hybrid battery pack and heavy electric running gear, so expect compromises over a more conventional hatchback with sporty aspirations.
But that’s exactly what Lexus has for the CT200h, with edgy, Corolla-on-steroids styling, low and firm suspension and a specific Sport model in the range. Any hybrid luddite like me can appreciate this as an exciting hybrid car; the real test though is whether you’d go so far as to say it’s an exciting car outright. I’ll put my neck on the block and say Lexus has achieved that here.
The range starts at a humble (for the brand and expensive hybrid technology) $51,000, but the F Sport that I sampled tops the range at $69,000 thanks to sports orientated seating, pedals, steering wheel, spoiler kit, wheels and suspension tuning. Add that to the list of luxury orientated items in the cabin like satnav, USB compatible audio, front, side, curtain and dual knee airbags, keyless start, electric seat adjustment and heating, puddle lighting, parking sensors, a rear view camera, radar-guided cruise control and even interior mood lighting that glows blue or red dependent on what drive mode (normal or sport) you have it in – but that novelty wears off quickly.
The most annoying omission was Lexus’ familiar touch screen for the essential cabin equipment. As the info display is just out of reach, controls are instead facilitated by a joystick in the centre console. It takes twice as long to achieve anything and is exponentially more frustrating.
On the road though, the CT200h makes up for a lot of the Prius’ shortfalls in terms of driver engagement. The ride remains comfortable enough not to offend the current batch of Lexus aficionados, while sharpening up cornering characteristics to draw in eco-minded buyers that have previously had just efficient European diesels to pick from. Weighing in at around 1.5 tonne, this isn’t lithe and won’t outmaneuver those Euro diesels, but with a squat stance and excellent Yokohama rubber, this is decidedly less wobbly than usual hybrid fare. The reality is it probably does a good enough job for all but our driving purists, and uses the smart looks to make up for the rest.
Performance is around the same as what you get from your typical hatchback; far from white-knuckle stuff, but you get your kicks in a different way with the CT. As it can run up to 40km/h on electricity alone, there is a guilty pleasure in navigating Auckland streets littered with servo stations without the dependency on bastard big oil. Even when running on petrol, don’t expect to use much more than the claimed – wait for it – 4.1L/100km economy.
So, are all the sporty looks, nifty interior illumination and affordable running enough to make me want one? Not so long as properly sporty hatchbacks like the Golf GTi are still plentiful. But this is still pretty revolutionary, not because of all the hybrid tech, but because it’s finally been applied in a way that’s palatable to car enthusiasts.