First Drive: 2014 Lexus CT 200h

THE RAIN is hammering down in Rome. A group of motor journalists hurries towards a fleet of new Lexus CT 200h hybrids that line the driveway of a luxury hotel, eying them first and foremost as basic shelter from the elements. As I dive inside the cabin of a mid-spec CT and unwrap a layer or two of clothing, the heavily updated centre console immediately stands out. The switchgear is still old-school Toyota, but there’s a lovely, thin interface screen at the top and a new rotary control dial at the bottom, positioned nicely within reach. Top-spec CTs get a neat joystick arrangement, but the system in this car is the entry-level unit that’s arguably easier to get used to. The big exterior styling change is the new ‘spindle’ grille, which even to my slightly tired morning eyes looks fantastic; much deeper and more recognisable than the old car’s. Other big, if less obvious news is the addition of spot welds around the boot aperture that have a marked effect on overall body stiffness - allowing the suspension to be softened slightly for greater overall control and comfort. Emissions are also down, as low as 82g/km of CO2 if you can make do with tiny 15-inch steel wheels, but even the aggressively styled and 17-inch-wheeled F Sport model records no higher than 94g/km. Free road tax all round, then, and the petrol-electric hybrid system naturally emits negligible particulate matter - a growing problem for diesels in the face of Euro 6 emissions rules. BMW has had to add nearly £1,000 to the freshly Euro 6-compliant diesel 3 Series just to cover the cost of the extra technology… With a pleasant bing breaking a silence peppered only by raindrops slapping against glass, the CT awakes. There’s no need to start the engine yet, so it pulls gently away from the hotel on electric power only. All CTs use the same 1.8-litre petrol engine and electric motor combo, controlled by a four-way driving mode selector spanning EV (electric vehicle) mode, Eco, Normal and Sport. Sport draws more power from the electric motor and produces an impressively responsive and even modestly brisk car, while Normal, Eco and EV mode reduce the output and increase the dependency on the electric motor. With a few miles of typically mental Roman traffic under its wheels the hybrid system proves pretty flawless, switching the engine and motor as required and very smoothly. It’s not as creamy an exchange as it is in the larger, pricier Lexus hybrids, but it’s still utterly relaxing to drive in the city. It’s also amazingly quiet, thanks to new noise, vibration and harshness-reducing tricks. Slicing through snarled traffic to the autostrada, even at a slightly naughty 90mph the CT is big-car hushed. No other car of its size can touch it for outright refinement. The stiffer body and softer suspension are Godsends on the unusually broken and streaming road surfaces. Frankly these are routes that make British B-roads feel as smooth as an A-list armpit, and under the circumstances the CT shows really impressive composure. One other crucial feature of note is the front seat design. Such well-shaped and naturally supportive chairs are so rare in this class that you’d be forgiven for forgetting they ever existed. But they do, and they’re right here. Top marks, Lexus. Build quality is exemplary and even among Lexus’ own high standards the CT has emerged as the most reliable car it has ever built. Price? Well, once you spec its rivals up to an equivalent level the Lexus is £3,000 or more cheaper. Its old drawbacks have all but disappeared, and unless you simply have to have the sharpest-handling car in the class the CT 200h is a match for any German rival. FACTS AT A GLANCE Model: Lexus CT 200h Luxury, from £24,495 on the road.Engine: 1.8-litre four-cylinder Atkinson cycle petrol engine linked to a single electric motor, producing a combined output of 134bhp.Transmission: Continually variable transmission driving the front wheels.Performance: Top speed 112mph, 0-62mph in 10.3 seconds.Fuel economy: 74.3mpg (16-inch wheels).CO2 rating: 88g/km (16-inch wheels).

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