Gareth Butterfield gets behind the wheel of a Lexus with an eco-friendly trick up its sleeve.
It's been a couple of years since I drove the hybrid version of Lexus's "luxury hatchback" the CT200. I wasn't overly impressed with it at the time, but now there's a new one and the nice people at Lexus tell me it's better. Guess what? It is.
It only takes a short drive around town to park it up for the day to realise that the suspension is much better than the last one – which was far too firm.
It's better looking too, especially on the outside, with its own version of Lexus's handsome "waterfall" family grille, and inside it benefits from the same upmarket trinkets found on top-spec luxury saloons.
This being a hybrid – partly driven by an electric motor and partly by a small petrol engine – it whirs away silently on its battery power and the engine cuts in when you're asking a bit too much of it.
As my commute home starts down hill and then lands me straight into a traffic jam, I never actually have any need for the engine.
This is great because I'm being wafted along silently without using any fuel, but this is also bad because it's a really hot day and, without an engine chugging away, the air conditioning won't work.
Once on the open road the engine soon cuts in. The electric motor can only do so much. Still, I manage over 50mpg on my 15-mile journey.
We're spending the weekend with the in-laws in Hertfordshire so the M1 beckons. Because we're going to be in a different postcode for longer than eight minutes, my wife packs a suitcase and several bags which I load into the boot.
Because the CT200h is a hybrid, many of the electrical gubbins are stored in the boot floor, which makes the luggage area very shallow. It's still a decent size for a couple on a weekend away and the rear seats do fold down, but a family of four might struggle.
On the motorway is where hybrid technology usually trips up. The CT200h has a fairly asthmatic 1.8 litre petrol engine which should feel fairly restrained at 70mph, but actually it copes very well.
It's comfortable and quiet and, 100 miles of M1 later, I'm quite impressed with how it's fared. I'm even more impressed when I notice that, despite the electric motor hardly ever cutting in and was little more than ballast, I've averaged just over 50mpg.
It's another hot day and the mother-in-law wants me to fetch some barbecue-related provisions. It's a short hop to the supermarket and the battery is full following the previous day's motorway jaunt, so the engine is barely used.
This means I have to go without air conditioning again and, on the way to Tesco, I notice the sat nav seems to be broken and keeps asking me to drive into fields and lakes. It's a shame because the new infotainment system in the latest Lexus line-up is brilliant.
A big fly in the ointment, however, is the gearbox. Toyota and Lexus use a continuously variable setup in their hybrids which means, rather than shift through a series of gears, it varies its ratio constantly to suit what is being asked of it at the time.
This might be economical but, when you're being a bit enthusiastic out of a sharp right-hander, all that happens is the revs rise so high the engine sounds like it's in pain and the car pulls gently away. There's no way of generating a satisfying in-gear surge. It won't bother everyone, but it's not a trait keen drivers will find appealing.
I'm having a go at breaking the monotony of my daily commute by trying to see how high I can get the MPG to rise on my 15-mile journey. This is tricky on a rural run because, while the 81bhp motor will happily propel you along at around 40mph without calling on the help of internal combustion, it will struggle to take you up a hill and the 98bhp engine quietly cuts in to give it a shove.
When you come down a hill, the regenerative braking system harvests momentum and uses it to recharge the battery you've just been using. You can gather even more energy by selecting the "B" mode on the dash-mounted gearstick and this applies fairly strong mechanical braking to give the battery even more charge.
For reasons involving red wine, this evening I've popped out to the local shop. When I get back to the car, there's a guy looking round it in the car park. I conclude, as I stroll over with the key in hand, he's either admiring it or about to nick it.
"It's nice, this." He tells me, and I'm pretty sure I look quite worried at this stage. He's bigger than me.
"I bet it's good on fuel," he adds, nodding towards the hybrid badge on the sill and possibly clocking the relief on my face as I realise I'm not about to be mugged for the keys.
Before I start fumbling my way through the story of my half-mile journey and how I didn't actually use any petrol at all, he toddles off. It's probably testament to the striking new front end that this car can draw admiring glances from random people in shop car parks. Especially when you consider that, actually, it's not all that expensive.
In actual fact, £25,000 will grant you ownership of a very well-equipped, hybrid-powered Lexus. It's a big investment, but it's an awful lot of car for the money.
The Lexus's problem in this corner of the market will be from the German rivals. Volkswagen, BMW, Mercedes and Audi can all present more conventional cars that compete fairly closely on price and, especially on the open road, their diesel engines can potentially out-perform the hybrid system in the Lexus. They won't beat its impressive 88g/km C02 output but, other than that, it's largely down to which badge you prefer and how much you value a sporty drive which, try as it might, the Lexus simply doesn't offer.
I've spent a lot of time running back and forth in the CT200h today, from meeting to meeting, and it's a lovely place to sit. It's comfortable, the stereo's great and I particularly like the steering wheel, which is modelled on the Lexus LFA supercar.
Being a Lexus, it's very quiet and exquisitely well-built but there are a few cheap bits I've spotted that Lexus's parent company, Toyota, haven't got round to ironing out.
Firstly, the indicators are a bit old-fashioned. On a couple of occasions they've failed to self-cancel and they don't have the rather useful "lane change" short-burst function a lot of modern cars feature these days. Also, the wipers don't set off on a final delayed sweep when you use your washers. Most modern cars do this, so why not Lexus?
The CT200h goes back tomorrow and it's fair to say I've grown rather fond of it. I'm not 100% convinced it's a better option than the German rivals, but then I think it's aimed at a different part of the market. Don't think of it as a sporting hatchback – think of it like a posh Prius that, when all's said and done, doesn't cost a huge amount more.
The new version looks better, is even more efficient and the ride and handling are massively improved. Its predecessor was successful and sold well so I've no doubt this new version will also become popular.