By 2015, Lexus is aiming to be the first wholly “hybrid” car brand. Bar the odd excursion into exotics, like its supercar LFA - which will remain powered by internal combustion alone - in the mainstream line up, you won’t be able to buy a car from Toyota’s upmarket brand that isn’t in part powered by a battery.
At the same time, the company is expecting to double its sales in the UK, and a big part of that will be achieved through sales of the car you see here - the CT200h. It’s just gone on sale, and Lexus hope tech-savvy, green-conscious buyers will choose it over the established opposition - the BMW 1 series and Audi A3.
Design-wise, we reckon the car may have a bit of a challenge on its hands, as it’s an awkward looking thing from many angles. The body surfaces feature many creases, which don’t resolve or sit together in the harmonious way you’ll find on an Audi. And the body looks like it’s sagging in a slightly portly manner, even over the reasonably large 17-inch wheels.
Step inside and there’s some odd materials on show too, such as the bizarre flocked velour upholstery, which looks like your granny’s 1970s sofa. Though step up from the bottom of the range and leather becomes standard.
But design isn’t really this car’s big selling point. Instead, it features one of the most advanced drive-trains you can buy in any car today, making it exceptionally clean and allowing you to drive on the battery alone at low speeds. Meanwhile, in the cabin there’s plenty of standard tech allowing for easy phone and music connectivity.
The drivetrain fuses a 134bhp petrol motor with a small battery pack, a CVT gearbox and Lexus’s unique powersplit management system, which means the CT200h can drive purely on the battery (up to 28mph), purely on its petrol engine, or (as it does most of the time) on a blend of both. It sounds, and is, complex - and if you’ve never driven a hybrid car before, at first the experience of driving it is quite eerie - but it’s easy to get used to and ultimately this car is as easy to drive as any automatic.
Where it scores though, is that you can average 68.9mpg and emit just 94g/km of CO2 if you drive it gently. Which means that if you’re a company car driver (and Lexus reckon a lot of CT200h buyers will be), you’ll be paying a lot less in tax than just about any of the comparative cars in this class.
Meanwhile, behind the wheel, you don’t get quite the same spaceship-like dash experience of Toyota’s poster-child hybrid car, the Prius, but you’ll spot the same type of energy flow display if you spec the optional satnav (standard on top of the range SE-L premier models), and in normal and eco modes, instead of a rev counter, you get a gauge on the dash to tell you if you’re driving at optimum efficiency and when you’re purely running on electric power.
There are the three driving modes - eco, normal and sport - selected via a knob by the gear selector (by the way, is it just us, or does this look a bit like a walking stick handle?). Eco mode remaps the accelerator pedal response to mediate the best efforts of those with a heavy right foot, and tries to keep the car in electric mode for as long as possible. Normal is the default setting, while sport gives you a sharper accelerator response, and gives the instrument panel a red glow. In sport, your eco/hybrid gauge also magically turns into a rev counter.
Elsewhere, there’s a USB and auxiliary port, Bluetooth phone and music capability as standard, and Lexus’s mouse-controller interface for the navigation, phone and audio screen functionality. We found this terrifically hard to use on the move, and it feels a little 1990s in appearance, which is at odds with a car that’s so technologically advanced underneath the skin.
But ultimately the CT200h is a clever car. You get a real sense of the technology and engineering integrity from behind the wheel, and it does everything it can to help you be as efficient as possible, without resorting to nagging you. It’ll even gauge outside temperature and proactively switch on the heated seats for you, to stop you having to use the climate control - because it’s a more energy efficient way of warming you up and helps to save fuel. It’s just a shame the ride is hard and crashy, the CVT gearbox makes for a noisy experience under hard acceleration and that the interior feels a step behind what you find in an Audi. But, starting at £23,485 for the SE-I spec car, which comes as standard with a great Mark Levinson hi-fi, Bluetooth, USB and aux port, rain sensing wipers and daytime running lights, the CT200h is good value.
We’d advise you check out a BMW 1 series and Audi A3 before buying one, because the design and driving experience of the CT200h won’t appeal to everyone. But if you’re keen on a premium car package, in having the latest power-train technology and in saving money on fuel and tax, then the Lexus CT200h may be just what you’re looking for.