This week we have the entry-level Lexus CT 200h – the Lexus take on the Prius – in for review and road test. A Prius in posh clothes or a sporty hybrid?
The surprise isn’t that Lexus has decided to build its own version of the Toyota Prius – the Lexus CT 200h - it’s that it’s taken them so long to do so. But there are reasons.
Mostly those reasons revolve around how to make a small Lexus work. Not in the literal sense, but in a marketing sense.
Because building a small Lexus is anathema to the brand. A brand built on the success borne of a desire to create a perfect replica of the S-Class. That’s perfect as in ‘will never break’ rather than perfect as in an ‘exact facsimile’.
And Lexus did that very well. So well, in fact, that the great American car buying public took to the big car from Japan with a made-up name, forsaking the Benz from Europe in the process. Which actually, you can understand.
You can understand because Mercedes lost its way in the mid 1990s, just as Lexus was finding theirs. The affluent American driver, who bought the S-Class because he could afford to and because it was the size of a domestic car and didn’t break, suddenly found that Lexus did the ‘It’s posh and it doesn’t break’ better than Mercedes.
Yes, Lexus has gone on to build smaller cars in the GS and IS and even an SUV in the RX, but they’re all in the same mould; beautifully built – but ultimately mostly uninspiring – cars for the well-off buyer who doesn’t covet handling and soul but wants comfort, toys, build quality and complete unbreakability (new word – would look better in German).
But the world is moving quickly and many are feeling the need to downsize as fears grow about income and jobs and fuel and climate change and any of a seemingly endless list of woes that engulf modern lives.
Lexus realise that even though their clientele are better off than the average, they’re also dinosaurs in marketing terms. Lexus need a smaller, funkier, more economical car to fill the role of downsize choice for existing customers, but also to bring those who aren’t yet considering a bungalow in Bournemouth as an appealing option in life in to the Lexus fold.
Step forward the Lexus CT 200h.
Conceived with the underpinnings of the Toyota Prius and the best efforts of Lexus to design a hatch that appeals to the aspiring twenty and thirty somethings (and promoted by the ever-youthful and ever-appealing Kylie Minogue) you expect the CT 200h to be somehow more inspiring in the flesh than it is in pictures. But it’s not.
It’s as if Lexus has taken the elements of many successful smaller cars – but mainly the Mazda3 – stuck them in an automated car CAD programme and out stepped the CT 200h. The CT 200h just looks generic. Except for the back, which just doesn’t seem to belong.
But let’s give it a chance.
It’s definitely nicely bolted together, this Lexus, although the interior is a bit of a letdown. The expectation was for something plush and upmarket with a contemporary feel and some funky materials.
Perhaps some two-tone leathers or a bit of Alcantara or carbon fibre or aluminium or really, anything but the middle of the road, dull interior Lexus has given the CT 200h.
But never mind, it’s all about the drive. Lexus has fiddled and tweaked the Prius underpinnings so we instead get a properly sporty chassis and a much more urgent power delivery and feel. Really?
Whatever Lexus may say, the CT 200h is still slow and, when pushing hard, you still have the unbearable high-revving noise inflicted by the CVT box. And if they have made the CT 200h more urgent than the Prius, it’s mighty tough to tell.
That the chassis is ‘Sporty’ is a fair enough claim. It is, if you define sporty as hard. The levels of grip are better than decent but all that Lexus seem to have done with the chassis is to make it a lot firmer. That may be fine on boulevard smooth roads, but it’s not all that pleasant on the UK’s broken and battered tarmac.
That said, if the hard ride was accompanied by enough get up and go to see if it made a difference to the handling, we could understand it. Younger buyers aren’t particularly put off by a firm ride (otherwise Audi would be out of business) but there has to be a trade-off. In the CT 200h there doesn’t seem to be any benefit in the firm ride. None.
But it’s going to be economical, because it’s a hybrid. Isn’t it?
Well, yes, we did discover the CT 200h could be economical, but the circumstances needed to be quite specific. You need to be pottering around in town traffic – with lots of stop and start and the electric motor doing some of the work – or you need a nice steady 65mph run on an empty motorway. Then you can get as much as 60mpg.
If you drive the CT 200h as we would expect anyone who is likely to buy it would, they won’t come close to those figures as they’ll hustle the CT 200h around because they have been told they’re buying a sporty car.
If you do that – which we did for most of the time – you’ll end up getting something around 45mpg, which is what we got. That’s worse than we got out of the BMW 320d when we had that.
All of which sounds quite damning. But it doesn’t have to be. The problem, as we see it, is that the CT 200h tries to appeal to a younger market by being smaller and funkier with a sporty suspension. But it can’t deliver what it promises. But that can be fixed.
It can be fixed if Lexus decides what it wants the CT 200h to be. Is it a sporty hybrid for a younger buyer? if it is, then they need to up the performance (a small supercharger would work) to give it a decent turn of speed without wrecking the fundamentals of the HSD. Or fit a decent turbo-diesel (that won’t happen).
They then need to set fire to the interior and refit it with some funky materials, taste and style. Do that, and younger buyers will be turned on instead of off.
On the other hand, they could just shove the interior upmarket with decent quality materials, soften and raise the suspension so it’s all squidgy and feather-pillow, fit smaller wheels and bigger tyres and aim the CT 200h at traditional Lexus buyers looking to downsize.
Either way would be a clear indication of what the CT 200h is about. As it is, the CT 200h falls short for everyone. Lexus need to know their target market and have the confidence to take the CT 200h there.
But the CT 200h was a nice colour. And the looks do grow on you. A bit.
Lexus CT 200h SE-I Quick Specs
- Engine: 1798cc Petrol – 134bhp (including motor)
- Performance: 0-62mph 10.3 seconds / Top Speed 112 mph
- Economy: 68.9 mpg - Official | 45.6 mpg Test
- Emissions: 94g/km
- Price: £23,485 | Price as tested £25,945
Lexus CT 200h SE-I full specification, data and price
Lexus CT 200h SE-I Review Photo Gallery
(40 photos – click any thumbnail for full gallery)