Lexus’s ageing sports-luxury hybrid hatch has been given an update for 2018, though familiar issues remain.
It’s been seven years since the Lexus CT200h debuted, yet a hybrid-powered luxury hatchback remains a rare concept.
Seven years is typically when products get that next-generation-model itch, though what we have here is yet another mild update for the Toyota Prius-based Lexus CT200h.
MY18 changes firstly bring subtle exterior styling revisions. Up front, the ‘spindle’ hourglass-shaped grille switches from horizontal bars to mesh (black for the F-Sport version we’ve tested here), the headlights adopt bi-LED lamps, and there are LED foglights in revised surrounds.
Side-on, there are new 16-inch wheels for the base Luxury variant, and the F Sport’s 17-inch alloys gain a dark metallic finish.
The tail-lights look sharper too, with an L-shaped design featuring all-LED lenses including indicators. There’s a revised lower rear bumper, with the F Sport again differentiated with black faux-vent trim.
The Lexus CT200h cabin is upgraded with a larger, 10.3-inch widescreen display for the Enform infotainment system, and new choices of white or red leather-accented interior or all black.
The MY18 Lexus CT200h also brings the hatch up to speed with contemporary driver aids. All models now feature Safety System +, which adds autonomous emergency braking, pre-collision warning for both pedestrians and vehicles, lane departure warning, radar cruise control, and auto high beam.
The changes aren’t free. The $40,990 Luxury is a $2150 increase, the range-topping $56,900 Sports Luxury is up $810, while the F Sport variant on test here jumps $1960 to $50,400.
The driver aids are particularly welcome, though there’s a sense Toyota’s luxury division is already prepping for CT Mark II, as the company has again opted against introducing its 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol turbo engine that debuted on the NX SUV in 2014.
The hybrid powertrain, of course, provides Lexus’s smallest model with great fuel economy, at least in the city and around the suburbs where there is greater opportunity to limit the use of the 1.8-litre petrol engine and rely on the electric motor alone.
Yet while the CT200h’s official consumption of 4.4 litres per 100km is good, Audi and BMW do have an answer, if not as clean in one case. The BMW 118d diesel has a lab-registered figure of 4.2L/100km, and the Audi A3 1.0 TFSI also drops under the 5.0L mark (4.9L).
It can be satisfying driving under electric power alone, though even in EV mode it takes only a little incline or a minor push of the throttle for the petrol engine to kick in.
The Toyota/Lexus hybrid system continues to impress with the seamless switch between petrol and electric power, and the delivery of that to the front wheels is never anything less than smooth.
But despite years of development, some of the hybrid system’s irksome characteristics have still yet to be ironed out.
The brake feel and response of the regenerative braking system, for example, remains disappointing. It makes smooth, accurate braking virtually impossible.
The lack of throttle response in Normal mode can be disconcerting when trying to enter a roundabout or turn out of a junction, prompting an almost permanent switch to the Sport mode via the rotary dial on the centre console (which you then push rather than rotate to return to Normal, or rotate left for Eco).
Even in Sport, performance is never more than sedate – a feeling that shouldn’t be surprising considering the drivetrain’s meagre 100kW combined output, and one confirmed by Lexus’s 0-100km/h claim for the CT200h: 10.3 seconds.
The droning CVT gearbox is hardly inspiring either, and there are no paddle-shift levers that could at least manipulate artificial ratios.
The CT200h F Sport (as well as the Sports Luxury variant) adopts ‘performance’ dampers, which aim to provide better body control and stability. And the smallest Lexus feels secure and predictable enough in corners, with adequately smooth and weighted steering.
Lexus’s hatchback is relatively heavy, weighing up to 1465kg, so it never feels light on its feet as you might expect from a compact five-door, and understeer arrives early if you try to increase the pace. Tyre noise is also prominent.
A comfortable ride would be an acceptable trade-off for the lack of dynamic excitement, though the CT200h’s ride is overly stiff and busy.
The front seats at least do their best to contribute to comfort, throwing in heating and plenty of electric adjustment for good measure.
Ergonomics are generally a strong point in the cabin, and front storage options include a centre console slot for your mobile, two deep cupholders, and square upright door bins.
Yet, although the CT200h’s cabin is clearly well constructed, as we’ve come to almost take for granted from a Lexus, the quality of the plastics and the tactility of the controls are more comparable with, say, a Mazda 3 than any of the German premium five-doors. The dash-mounted gear lever feels especially cheap. The console bin lid also feels a bit loose, and just bangs shut.
A stint in the Lexus NX the same week emphasised how Lexus is improving in this area, but with plenty of work still to do.
The MY18’s new, wider infotainment display is a big improvement – literally – over the old 7.0-inch layout. The downside is that there’s no change to Lexus’s fiddly and unintuitive Enform system.
The joystick, which itself betrays the CT’s age, is too sensitive when trying to select a function icon – you commonly skip to the next one by accident – and it makes for an unnecessary distraction while driving. It’s also strange that you can’t scroll down some of the function pages using the joystick. Instead, you need to use separate up/down buttons.
The Mark Levinson audio – part of a $4500 option pack also including sunroof and smart key card – was a mixed experience. There’s a nice bass to be enjoyed, though when we tried streaming through Spotify, the maximum sound was restricted to the point where you couldn’t enjoy it.
Rear passengers will want music, because the back seat is otherwise a joyless affair. There are no vents, armrest or USB ports, the rear door trim is finished in cheaper plastic than that used for the front doors, and knee room is cramped for average-sized adults.
The CT200h’s shallow boot is another consequence of the hybrid system’s battery pack being positioned under the rear seats. Boot width is good, though, and there are some underfloor storage compartments, while the rear seats split-fold 60/40 for larger items.
The Lexus CT200h was a car compromised from the start – a model tasked with taking on some strong rivals yet ill-prepared by being based on a humble Toyota Prius and a lack of drivetrain options.
As per Lexus tradition, the CT200h can claim to offer some features – such as active cruise, electric front seats – that cost extra on a comparably priced A3 or 1 Series.
It’s not the usually decisive equipment gap, however, and certainly can’t compensate for a sports luxury hatchback that struggles to deliver either sportiness or luxuriousness.
Then you consider the quality hatchbacks you could buy for similar money – Volkswagen Golf R, Audi A3 1.4 TFSI, BMW 125i M Sport, Mercedes-Benz A200d – and it makes it difficult to recommend the CT200h. Or go wild and opt for a Honda Civic Type R.
It’s interesting that in the North American market, Lexus has already decided to ignore this MY18 update and shut up shop on the CT200h.
Like us, they’re no doubt looking forward to seeing what Lexus can achieve with the much needed next-generation model.
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