WHATEVER you’ve heard about the standard of driving in Rome, it’s true. With bells on.
For “lane changes”, read “chaos theory”, indicator stalks are for hanging your Gucci handbag on and you can park where you like, as long as it’s in the outside lanes of the cross-town boulevards. During rush hour, preferably.
All of which makes me glad I’m here in the latest Lexus CT200h. Driving it requires less effort than breathing – just slide the joystick-like gearstick into drive and off you glide – which is a blessing when you’re trying your hardest not to kill or be killed on a lunchtime scramble from the gates of the Vatican to Leonardo da Vinci Airport.
Lexus has treated its hybrid hatchback to an overhaul, giving it a new face, tweaks to the interior, improved emissions and a price drop. That the company chose to launch the car into the Eternal City’s mad traffic suggests it’s well aware of its ability to bring order where there is discord.
First thing you’ll notice is that gaping mouth – its maker calls it the “spindle grille” and it’s now a common feature across the Lexus range. The all-mesh affair on our CT200h F-Sport test car certainly gives the new car a presence the old one never had.
Under the skin, Lexus has invested time and engineering effort in making the CT200h more pleasant to drive than its predecessor. I drove that car three years ago, back when Kylie was on the telly touting it as the world’s first “premium compact hybrid”. All was going well until I floored the accelerator to overtake slow-moving traffic on the Edinburgh bypass, and thoughts of premium went out the window as the engine tried to rev itself inside out.
This time, although the combined 134bhp output of the petrol-electric hybrid powerplant remains the same, the continuously-variable transmission has been re-worked for a closer link between engine speed and road speed. It’s still not perfect, but it’s much better, as I found out once I’d realised that the only way to beat Roman traffic is to drive faster than it. I’m not sure F-Sport’s rather optimistic rear spoiler contributed much in the way of downforce as I nudged, ooh, 70mph, but at least it made the car look the part.
The bodyshell features extra welds and bonded joints to improve rigidity, allowing Lexus engineers to soften the suspension, so the CT200h makes a better fist of smoothing out the bumps without wallowing in the bends. And, believe me, Rome’s roads need a lot of smoothing. “Was that a pothole or a marble quarry?” came the cry from my co-driver as we picked our way between the pock marks on the road by Lake Bracciano.
Inside, the CT200h gets a new steering wheel, pinched from its big brother, the IS. It also gets that car’s rather naff plastic glovebox release button, which is at odds with the otherwise top-notch cabin. Perhaps there’s scope for an aftermarket item cast in magnesium or somesuch.
The CT200h’s party trick, though, is its clever powerplant and driving modes. There are four options: EV mode makes the car run on battery power alone, which it will do at speeds of up to 28mph for up to 1.2 miles. Eco mode lets the petrol motor join in, but blunts throttle response for better fuel consumption. Sport mode gives you more oomph from the electric motor and lets the engine rev a bit more. Plain old Drive mode is the compromise option, and the setting most owners will use, since the CT200h is happiest at a gentle cruise.
Tweaks to the car’s aerodynamics mean models on 16-inch wheels emit just 88g/km of CO2, 6g/km better than before. Stick it on 15-inch wheels with aerodynamic trims and that drops to 84g/km. Our F-Sport, with its 17-inch wheels, returns 94g/km and a theoretical 68.9mpg on the combined cycle. Prices are down by between £1,000 and £1,500, meaning the entry level S model can be yours for £20,995. At the top of the range, the kit-rich Premier is £29,495.
Take note, citizens of Rome. Anger-free motoring is more affordable than ever.
Engine 1.8l petrol, 4 cyl, and electric motor, 134bhp combined
Performance Max speed 112mph; 0-62mph 10.3s
CO2 emissions 94g/km