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Hatch of the day


Cars, like people, can provide you with amazing contrasts in the space of such a short time. I was on the phone to someone the other day -- at my desk -- and they nearly took the nose off me (an improvement, albeit painful). I was a bit annoyed but, being busy, let it go. An hour later the same person came back on and was all about me. I let it go on the basis that everyone has their pressures these days.

Cars? One minute you can love something about them, the next you discover an annoyance.

Take this Lexus CT200 hybrid. The world's first full hybrid premium compact took me by surprise.

I liked the look of it -- some don't -- and I really warmed to the cabin. This has the look of a longish hatch -- it almost stretches to being like a neat estate. But it certainly catches the eye.

And they've made a wonderful job of the cabin, with some tasty touches and a real effort to make it look and feel 'premium'.

So for anyone thinking of moving up from a family hatch or down from a larger Lexus, Beemer, Merc, Jaguar, Audi etc there's no real tangible loss of comfort, though there are less copious quantities of room.

What sets it apart, ultimately, I suppose is the fact that it is a hybrid, with a 1.8-litre petrol engine, a powerful electric motor, a battery pack and a computer orchestrating when all those elements should put their collective or individual shoulders to the wheel.

It all made for a rather smooth passage. Indeed, I was musing that this was one of the quietest cars you will drive for many a long day. It just goes to show what can be done when you consider that it borrows so heavily from so many elements of the Toyota Prius hybrid.

So there I was, loving it, piling on the kilometres and being the perfectly 'green' driver I felt I should be in a car of this nature.

Indeed, I broke with tradition and twisted the knob to Eco (there is also Normal and Sport) and never once attempted to drive it at anything other than a moderate speed. I also drove for a little while on pure electric power (you can get up to two kilometres in this mode below 45kmh).

Contrast that with my normal driving which is usually urgent and to the point.

Of course, it couldn't last. So I put the foot down. And then from the silence came the whine of the petrol engine as it attempted to respond through the continuously variable transmission.

The contrast was marked. I learned to cope with it by moderating my urgency and reducing the whine. Some would say it was motoring imitating life again.

There is no doubt I could have driven this in Eco mode and felt quite happy. It would never have invoked that engine complaint -- which to be fair was a good deal less noticeable in Normal or Sport mode.

I know for sure that most people who buy one of these -- and I expect there will be a substantial number doing so for a variety of reasons -- will not be looking for zip and zest. They will want, and get, a smart looking motor with a lovely cabin, decent boot (back seats fold flat for a commendable carrying area) and lower than average fuel consumption.

The suspension is such a major refinement on that of the Prius though it doesn't really encourage you to fling it into corners. I'm not saying this lacks bite. There is a nice edge to it but, in contrast to some of its perceived rivals, it doesn't have that sort of performance 'feel'. That's all right. I don't mean that as a criticism.

It is merely pointing to the subtlety of distinction between it and others.

Again, in contrast, I don't think the others can match its cabin nor the sense of being that bit 'special'. Let's be fair to Lexus here.

It has managed to make this into a fine piece of work, bringing an awful lot of big-prestige car quality and feel to it. I imagine that took some doing.

And if you want to marvel at its technology, then you can watch the flow and counterflow of energy on a nifty little display. And I found the multimedia instrument display so easy to use. Some endearing (to me) little touches: when driving at night the backdrop to the speedo, etc goes from blue (when you are not being too hard on the juice) to red (when you are). Childish maybe to even mention this but we enjoyed it.

But the real basis of considering this has to be the practicality it affords in parallel with the snob value of the name and the cachet of the hybrid genre. Here's a full hybrid that costs under €30,000, will only set you back €104 a year on road tax and carries maintenance costs estimated at 40pc below some rivals. That is due to the absence of such items as alternator, clutch or drive belts. And there is a five-year/100,000km warranty on the battery which is designed to last the life of the car anyway.

This is going to be the biggest-selling Lexus and as such will bring a lot more people into the hybrid scene. I can see it doing really well.

Those trading up will find it quite a contrast with what they've left.Those trading down will be pleasantly surprised, I think.

Well worth taking the time to test drive this. Have a good time sampling the differences.


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