Lexus CT200h

Mustard anyone?

I recently returned from the launch of the Lexus CT200h in Cape Town (no puns around CT and Cape Town please). The CT200h not only opens up the Lexus brand into a new market segment, but opens up the market segment to the first small luxury hybrid hatchback.

Lexus has South Africa’s widest hybrid model line up on offer, with hybrid derivatives of the GS, Rx, luxury LS, and now the CT200h. Toyota (motherbrand) was recently voted the Greenest brand by the Interbrand Survey 2011 and Lexus boasts over 150 hybrid units sold in SA per year, which is the highest of any brand in SA. This all said, Lexus owners are also the most satisfied, as voted by the owners themselves (JD Power 2011) and scored a Goldmedal from Synovate (SA) for after sales service. Premium owner experience and customer satisfaction is key, and this translates from the owners of the cars themselves. A good start for a new model indeed.

The CT200h is a small luxury hybrid hatchback that seats 5 passengers, with a modest amount of boot space and an extremely high quality premium interior. Immediate competitors that come to mind are the BMW 1 series and Audi A3. None of which have a hybrid model on offer. It’s a first in the South African landscape, and a first I came to thoroughly enjoy on the 160km route in and around the Cape peninsula on launch. Two model variants are on offer, the CT200h S and CT200h F-Sport with the option of a Convenience package for either. (see here for more detail – http://www.lexus.co.za/model/CT200h/product-information)

Let’s start with the Lexus Hybrid drive system. “Combining a 1.8-litre VVT-i Atkinson cycle petrol engine and a powerful electric motor, the CT 200h delivers 100kW of total system output. The sophisticated petrol engine delivers 73kW at 5 200 rpm and 142Nm between 2 800 and 4 400 rpm. But the real performance benefits are arrived at courtesy of the 60kW of electric power on board and additional 207Nm that allow 2,0-litre petrol performance and competitive turbodiesel torque.” On this point, why not a turbodiesel engine? Well, the noxious gasses that get released by a diesel motor are often overlooked, and as stated at the launch, the petrol engine still has a way to go before full economical and efficiency benefits from it are completely realised.

From behind

On the road, the engine is no slouch, but it’s no pocket rocket either. It takes some serious getting used to when accelerating off the mark. As stated at the launch, it’s best to put pedal down, get it up to the speed you’d like, and then let the electric engine take over and “maintain” the speed you need to, maximizing efficiency. Now there’s a couple things to segment here, the fact that there are different driving modes available, as well as different models that significantly alters driving experience.

Starting with the moods, there is a choice of two distinct driving moods – Dynamic, or Relaxing – in conjunction with the full hybrid’s EV, ECO, NORMAL and SPORT, ‘on-demand’ drive modes. Basically this goes from EV (only electric motor, in certain driving conditions) all the way up to full electric and engine thrust for sportier driving. We drove most the way in ECO mode and found that it did just fine in most conditions except when wanting to overtake or pushing through the twisties.

Interior - Superior

The Eco mode does take some getting used to as the CVT gearbox (hate hate hate) does make for an interesting sound that gets emitted. The problem here is that the sound of the revs VS speed at which you are increasing in speed is not natural. We are used the common relationship that lots of noise from the engine means lots of speed, which is not the case. Unfortunately the CVT gearbox makes it sound like the gearbox is slipping (natural) yet you don’t gather speed that rapidly. This is probably the only deterrent from this vehicle for me, as it’s something you’d have to get used to, as it’s fairly unnatural and unnerving at first.

That said the various modes work beautifully, with a turn dial centre on the dash to switch between the different modes for different driving moods. EV (only electric motor – thus very silent) mode is particularly effective when sneaking up behind cyclists on Chapman’s Peak and then scaring them with the horn. Sport mode does give some extra shove as well as stiffen up pedal response and steering feel. A very nice touch is the way the dials light up red when sport is engaged, and also switches the drive train indicator to a revcounter. On that, there is no shortage of places to watch how and what is happening under the skin with regards to the drive train.

Different dials for different modes. Nifty

Dynamically the car is superb. I drove the F-Sport model and it handled exceptionally considering the big lump of battery in the back. There’s near no body lean or roll and the car handled impeccably over the various different driving situations we demanded of it. I read some horror reviews overseas about the handling but can honestly say that they must be comparing it to something like a Ferrari FF.

In true Lexus style, the interior is… to be frank, amazing. The model we drove came with the convenience pack, which added every bell and whistle. In F-Sport guise, it’s differentiated by 17-inch alloy wheels, LED headlamps, and a larger boot spoiler. The luxury specification also gets enhanced by sports seats, the driver’s eight-way electrically adjustable with lumbar support, and cruise control. It also benefits from the addition of front and rear performance dampers.

As an option, the CT 200h F-Sport can be ordered with a Convenience Package that includes an upgraded sound system with four additional speakers and an amplifier, Smart Entry, rain sensing wipers, a full colour monitor with HDD navigation and voice command with Remote Touch, and a reverse camera with back-guide monitor. The interior is a place of class and elegantly hand stitched leather. Novel touches on a hatchback included the padded armrest in the doors, something many manufacturers only offer in their very premium sedans. I have no complaints about the interior as everything including the Remote touch system (which you drive exactly like a stationary computer mouse…something we can do very well) was incredibly easy to use at first glance. Another great touch is how the sound system integrated the music from the iPhone and allowed full discovery of the iPhone music listing on the Remote touch system. Not so cool, the fact that you can’t do anything on there once the car is moving. Bleh. Rear seat passengers can definitely find more room than in the 1Series, and seating for both front and rear passengers are supremely comfortable.

Doors. Wide Open

On the looks front, I’d say that it’s not bad looking at all. The darker colours seemed to do the car more justice in my view. It’s nothing massively out of the box, but it doesn’t happen to insult or stand out as “I’m DRIVING A HYBRID” which is so 2005.

Overall, I was genuinely surprised at how easy to drive the vehicle was, and most importantly, we returned a 5.5litre/100km on our 160km trip. This is seriously and I mean SERIOUSLY impressive considering the inclines, speeding and mountain passes we traversed in our drive. We at no point were puttering around keeping traffic backlogged for hours. There seems to be a huge case for a car that can actual return these real world figures and return below 94grams of emissions (no emissions tax). Emissions is something that I don’t think South African’s truly care about yet, and that’s why it’s be interesting to see how this vehicle fairs.

Fuel Economy - Belieb it

The great bit about the car is that it is the first Lexus into the premium hatch category, and it just happens to be a hybrid. It doesn’t shout about it, it just goes about it, hoping to make the transition as unnoticeable to the way you drive as possible.

The CT200h S model retails for R343,300, with the F-Sport model coming in at R398,500. Add the Convenience package to the F-Sport and you’re up at R434,200.The Lexus CT 200h is backed by a four years/100 000km manufacturer warranty and full four years/100 000km service plan. There is unfortunately nothing one can compare it to, as it’s a first in market segment category. This car will hopefully attract a younger audience, and mark on the success of the 1series and A3 to BMW and Audi respectively, by securing buyers into the nameplate to upsell to them at a later stage.

Black is the new black

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Mini Cooper Countryman S – 2010

I’ve got to hand it to the guys at Mini, the Countryman launch was an experience that rightfully complimented the ethos of the new Countryman brand. Starting off at Constitution Hill for breakfast, we were taken down for a sensory experience that included interactive floor projections, and a box-like 3-screen short film. This all to get into the spirit of ‘getting away’. It all was very impressive, and seemed like no expense had been spared. We headed out in the basic 1.6litre first, all the way out past Lanseria in convoy to a secret destination for a fully catered picnic lunch and massages. In true mini style, everything had been ‘mini-fied’ including the bathrooms (it’s the small touches that really count)
The way back we had the pleasure of the Countryman S All 4 (4 wheel drive) to Randlords in central JHB for afternoon drinks. There was never a moment that we were left unattended or wanting for anything, they even provided an Ultamix CD for each car to enjoy. It truly gave one an indication of what you could do on a day with your Countryman, solidifying the “get away anywhere” nature of the car. Impressive stuff. Enough about the launch day, let’s get down to the cars.

Looks wise – don’t let the pictures fool you, the Countryman is substantially larger than the current Mini, with an aggressive flat front grille (gaping or with slats) and a clean, much larger, bubble rear. Ground clearance has been raised, as this Mini is positioned for the “get out of town” persona, allowing it to easily traverse a gravel road to the lodge or your mountain-biking trail. This said, it isn’t to everyone’s liking. The team in our car commented that it reminded them of a London Taxi cab from behind, and was a clear departure from the ‘cute’ Mini feel of before. You can clearly see this car is aimed at a predominantly male audience, and it comes across in the looks, colour schemes and myriad of options that all give the car a more macho physique

Interior and build quality– I have never been a huge fan of Mini build quality, as the cars seem to rattle a lot more than you’d expect. I must say that’s all been sorted out in the Countryman. The interior is classic Mini. Notable differences however is the optional MiniConnect, which allows you to sync your iPhone (and soon BBerry) with the car’s infotainment system, running a Mini App on your phone, to display all your social media applications, listen to international radio, Google Search via the car, and much more. I only saw a limited demonstration of it, but it’s the best integration of phone to car I’ve seen. Also interesting use of slide-rail technology allows different things to be bolted to the centre-tunnel (in our model a sliding sunglasses holder) which is an interesting design and functional element. Two things that differentiate the interior of the Countryman from any of the others, is the (obvious rear doors) but also rear seating & legroom. I can only compare it to the likes of a Mercedes Benz ML in terms of sheer amount of space. Somehow, they’ve managed to free up a large amount of space in the back, which is great! The other obvious gripe of other Mini’s was boot space, and this Countryman definitely improves on that with a larger boot size. This all very in line with the “getting away” tagline of the car

Engine – basically, unless you’re used to driving a donkey cart in the yellow lane, don’t go for the basic 1.6. The engine strains to get the heavier Mini moving, and takes a full 365 days to 100km/h. Much more to my liking is the 1.6 twin turbo which pushes out 135kW and on overboost delivers 260NM of torque. If you’ve ever driven a Mini, this is the engine you fall in love with. It’s incredibly keen to push through the revs, but requires work from the short –throw gearstick. There’s an auto option too, but the real fun is in the manual. The other drivers (that weren’t Mini drivers) didn’t like the very evident turbo-lag in 1st and 2nd gear, something that Mini drivers get used to. You need to keep the turbo spooling above 2000RPM to really make it hussle.

Handling and brakes – Once again, a myriad of options to improve the handling make every one a different ride.(Sports pack, larger wheels etc) In standard 1.6 guise, the handling was not usual Mini stuff. It was fairly wallowy in the bends, and passengers in the rear found themselves bobbing around. The Countryman S All-4 showed NONE of that. Glued to the ground, with typical Mini poise, it really comes alive in the twisties, and is especially interesting to push with the 4wheel drive models. Interesting fact, the 4wheel drive system used is a very basic adaption of the BMW X-Drive system, allowing power to be sent to front or rear axels (up to 100% in certain driving conditions)
The CountryMan S also comes in standard front wheel drive, however I’d opt for the All-4, in my view, if you’re gonna use it as a ‘go-explore’ car, I’d want the capability to do it. (That said this is NO soft roader, and I suspect this 4wheel drive option was only introduced as a necessity for the European and US markets because of the snowy stuff)
The great thing about the Countryman is the fact that, because of the increased ride height, and some magic dust, they’ve managed to make it handle like a normal Cooper in most situations, but be a LOT more comfortable. It doesn’t crash over bumps, or imperfections in the road, (every road in JHB) but rather coasts right over them, which is the best part of the Countryman in my books.
All the models come standard with ESP, ABS, EBD and I found braking to be on par with what one would come to expect from new vehicles.

Steering – on both models, steering was precise, light enough in the parking lot, yet weighted when the going gets interesting (as it should in a Mini)

Pricing – Well, how long is a piece of string. No really. Mini’s are probably, second to a Bentley, the most customizable cars on order today. This personalization however, does come at a premium. The sad fact is that if you want it to look rough / sporty / outdoorsy / girly / different, you’re gonna pay for it.
At time of posting this review, the cheapest 1.6 Countryman (manual 6-speed) was on offer for R287 500, and the most expensive 1.6S All-4 (manual 6-speed) starting at R393 000. *** Note that this is pre ANY options, so that’s just the base price you can work off of.
I specced one up at a dealership the following day (albeit rather liberally) to around R477 000 (2 Packages, different rims, colours, and Mini Connect included)

Value for money – I’m not so sure, it’s quite a bit of money for a Mini, and honestly there’s just some things that should be standard at this price range that isn’t. It’s hard to compare it to anything like a Rav4 or a Freelander II because it’s not a real off-roader, or even an Quattro Audi A3 sportback … no that doesn’t work either. So the verdict is still out on that one.

What really caught my attention, is that this car is to someone out there, a quirky, head turning city car, with all the amenities… and a dirt road traversing, bike and picnic basket carrying weekend getaway car too. Pretty impressive if you think of it that way.