Imagine, if necessary, that you're a young, well-to-do 20- or 30-something looking for a compact luxury car. Conventional logic dictates you should buy an Audi A3 or BMW 1-series, but those wishing to depart from the norm may want to consider the Japanese-built Lexus CT 200h luxury hybrid.
Not only does this car have a badge that will make onlookers solemnly nod in respect, plus an options list that could make a BMW blush, it also offers something its rivals can only dream of -- hybrid propulsion that delivers low-emission, high-economy driving. But is this car any good? We hopped in the £25,200 mid-range CT 200h SE-L to find out. The range starts at £23,485.
The 200h makes a good first impression, for the most part. Its front end has a keen, purposeful appearance, like it's angry with the road ahead. The 'hybrid' badges on the left and right sides spoil any illusion that the 200h is a mental tarmac shredder, but the prominent 'L' emblem on the front and rear will remind onlookers that you're driving something slightly more special than the average Prius.
The back half of the 200h looks pretty decent too, but only if considered in isolation. Call us crazy, but the rear somehow clashes with the front. It's almost as if each end was designed by a separate Lexus team before being welded together.
Although the appeal of the car's exterior is debatable, we were very impressed by its cabin. It has a reassuringly expensive appearance and feel, and is littered with buttons, lights and enough gizmos to keep most tech heads entertained for hours.
Lex me entertain youThe 200h's interface is divided into two areas -- a display zone and a control zone. Taking pride of place in the display zone, which sits on the upper half of the dashboard, is a large, motorised, angle-adjustable, 8-inch TFT display.
The screen can't be controlled by touch, but that's not a huge issue, as it's positioned out of reach anyway. Interacting with the display is only possible by prodding buttons in the control zone, which sits on the lower half of the dashboard and on the centre console.
This main point of interest in the control zone is the Lexus Remote Touch interface, which works exactly like a joystick or mouse. Move the stick left, right, up or down, and a cursor on the display reacts accordingly. The cursor snaps reassuringly onto icons as it passes over them, while a brief vibration is sent through the joystick to affirm you've selected something that can be interacted with.
The system is extremely easy to use while you're stationary or while the vehicle is in motion -- even more so, perhaps, than an ordinary touchscreen, since there's no need to exert yourself by physically holding your arm in the air.
Despite its relatively exotic styling, the 200h is powered by the same components as the common, or garden, third-generation Toyota Prius. It uses a 98bhp 1.8-litre engine that ticks over using the Atkinson cycle -- a combustion process optimised for economy rather than performance. This is paired with an 81bhp electric motor that helps provide a combined power output of 134bhp.
That's not a terribly impressive power figure, and it shows. Twist the car's driving-mode knob into the sport setting and the 200h gently eases itself from a standstill to 62mph in 10.3 seconds -- just a hundredth of a second quicker than the Prius. It continues at a relatively pedestrian pace until it reaches the same 112mph maximum speed as its rival.
The car has enough grunt to keep up with the flow of fast-moving motorway traffic, but doesn't really offer enough power to pass Sunday drivers, unless you're driving on a long stretch of road with plenty of room to overtake.
Bend it like Beckham
The 200h isn't particularly quick in a straight line, but Lexus has done its utmost to make the car handle effectively, through clever weight distribution. The car's hybrid-propulsion components are mounted as close to the floor of the vehicle as possible, helping it to maintain a low centre of gravity, and components located furthest away from the centre of gravity have been given the Weight Watchers treatment. The bonnet, tailgate and bumper reinforcements are all made from lightweight aluminium.
Many diesel cars usually mount their 100kg or so engines directly over the front axle, causing handling imbalances. The 200h, on the other hand, has a 50kg engine mounted at the front, and the weight of that engine is offset by a 55kg electric motor over the rear.
The 200h's suspension helps its handling, too. Whereas the Prius uses comparatively decrepit torsion-beam rear-suspension technology, this car uses the slightly fancier double-wishbone variety, which, although heavier by nature, is widely used in sports cars, as it offers better stability when you're driving like a hoodlum.
The 200h's hybrid gubbins means it's affordable to run -- even with petrol prices higher than a pre-rehab Charlie Sheen. The car achieves an impressive 68.9mpg on the combined cycle, which is considerably more than the 60.1mpg achieved by the diesel-powered BMW 118d, but slightly below the 74.3mpg you'd get with an, albeit slightly less nippy, Audi A3 1.6 TDI 105PS.
The 200h trumps both its rivals in terms of low emissions. The car emits carbon dioxide at a rate of just 94g/km. That's 5g/km less than the Audi A3 and a whopping 29g/km less than the BMW. It's an even rosier picture as far as nitrous oxide emissions are concerned. The 200h spits out just 3.3mg/km of the stuff, compared to the hundreds of mg/km spewed out by its rivals' diesel engines.
If you're an uber hippie, you may want to take advantage of the car's electric-only driving mode, which disables the engine temporarily to power the car on electric power alone. This can drive the 200h at speeds of up to 27mph, but, with a total range of just 2 miles, it's hardly worth the bother.
We really like the Lexus CT 200h. Its straight-line performance isn't great, but it corners superbly, has a comfortable, luxurious air and is cheap to run. The Prius is less expensive and offers slightly better economy, but the 200h is a far more desirable package.
Edited by Charles Kloet