First Drive: Lexus CT 200h

Barely awake despite an early-morning alarm call, I was handed the keys to the new Lexus CT 200h and sent off in to the Friday morning rush hour traffic. That’s usually a good way to wake up the senses, but when the city in question is Rome, the adrenalin starts flowing rapidly.

Crossing the Tiber in front of the Vatican, I see three lanes clearly marked out on the road ahead of me. Surprisingly, I see at least seven lanes of traffic, with cars travelling in three directions on this one way road.

No pressure then. Just don’t bend the car.

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My co-driver for the day starts reeling off the changes made to the car as a way of taking my mind of the chaos unfolding in front of me.

Released in 2011 on to a public that thought Lexus made cars that were simply too expensive, the CT 200h was the Japanese firms budget offering to tempt younger buyers out of their BMW 1 Series or Audi A3.

The plan worked, with the CT immediately becoming Lexus’ best selling model. However, that success hasn’t been achieved without some criticism on the way.

Chief amongst those issues was a bone-jarringly hard ride, but accusing fingers were also pointed towards the limited performance and lifeless handling.

This mid-life facelift aims to fix many of the issues with myriad changes under the skin, but the most noticeable changes occur on the outside. Most obvious is the new ‘spindle’ grille that dominates the front end, bringing the CT in to line with the latest Lexus style. New fog light surrounds and some aero bits finish off the face, while a new rear bumper accentuates the cars broad stance. The eagle eyed might notice a new aerial too.

Lexus CT 200h 2014 Interior’s the most subtle of makeovers inside, with a new steering wheel being the most obvious change. A new iDrive-style rotary control is in place to look after the climate, Bluetooth and navigation, while those who’ve spent extra for the Premium Navigation system get an additional 4.2-inch screen in the instrument panel.

Beyond that, it’s more of the same, which means there’s a stylish and exceptionally well built cabin that’s generously equipped. All models receive climate control, Bluetooth, automatic wipers and USB and aux-in connectivity. Extra sound proofing is also in place in the rear wheel arches to reduce noise in the cabin, but there’s not enough to isolate tyre roar.

The engineers have also attempted to address the ride issues through liberal use of new adhesives across the lower body structure and 20 extra spot welds around the rear of the car. These changes stiffen the bodywork, allowing the spring rates to be reduced and the anti-roll bar to be adjusted, creating a softer and more compliant ride.

Lexus CT 200h 2014 Low Profile Phil Huff new anti-roll bar in the rear also adds to the process, allowing a more cushioned ride without affecting the handling. The end result falls somewhat short of expectation though, with the CT 200h remaining one of the firmer cars in its class, bouncing and skipping across cracks and potholes around the city and in to the countryside. That said, once it’s up to speed and cruising along a motorway, the ride smoothes out and order is restored.

The firm ride suggests this could be a sporty hatchback, but steering that feels disconnected from the road, along with a gaping chasm of dead space around the straight ahead, makes it tricky to weave through the twisty bits, and unrewarding when you do. There’s no shortage of grip though, so it’s a shame that it’s so difficult to make full use of it.

Lexus’ existing 98bhp 1.8 litre petrol engine and 81bhp electric motor is retained, attached to a modified CVT automatic gearbox that now behaves in a more linear fashion. It’s still a little pedestrian though, with zero to sixty taking 10.3 seconds. It does have one trump card to play though; with low CO2 emissions and a strong price point, P11d values and BIK rates are kept exceptionally low, making this a potential fleet driver’s favourite.

Lexus CT 200h 2014 Rear Phil Huff the entry-level S specification, with its 15-inch wheel, CO2 emissions have dropped to a low 82g/km, while the list price has been reduced by £1,500. Spec for spec, the CT is cheaper than each of its rivals, while also coming at least 4% lower on the BIK banding. The new business-friendly Advance grade adds cruise control, sat-nav, heated seats, privacy glass, and larger wheels for £4,000, while retaining the 11% BIK band, as does the fast looking F-Sport.

It’s no surprise that 70% of CT 200h’s end up with business buyers, as the financial advantages are clear.

Thoughts of tax and emissions are put to one side though as I make my way back to the city following a beautiful drive through the Italian countryside. The airport has departure and arrival areas, yet the road splits in to six different routes, all signposted as something completely different.

I find a car park and drop the car there. It’s not the right car park, but somebody from Lexus will find it eventually. The CT really does stand out amongst the rows of parked BMWs and Audis and, despite its obvious flaws, the fact that the car is now more efficient, slightly quieter and a little more comfortable means it’s worthy of consideration on its own merits.

As for Rome, it’s a wonderful, vibrant city. I’ll be going back, but next time I’ll take a taxi.

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Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.

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