When you think of the Lexus brand, do you imagine a compact, semi-sporty hybrid hatchback? That's what the 2012 Lexus CT 200h is, and while it's a departure for Toyota's luxury brand, it's a surprisingly successful one. Its mission is to make Lexus relevant to a new audience: Gen X and Gen Y buyers with green leanings who are moving up from their basic compact cars—or Toyota Prius hybrids—and might be persuaded to consider a more luxurious Lexus that delivers gas mileage of 40 mpg or more.
Regardless of the luxury level, the CT 200h is one of the most efficient vehicles sold in the U.S. this year. The EPA rates the littlest Lexus at 43 mpg city, 40 mpg highway--giving it a combined 42 mpg rating--and we found the car to deliver 40 mpg in a variety of real-world uses.
The CT 200h is a slightly squat hatchback that attracts little public attention. There's no equivalent gasoline model--in the lingo, it's a "dedicated hybrid" car--but you'd never peg it a hybrid in the way you would the better-known Toyota Prius. The one drawback to its low height is the slit-like rear window, which limits rear vision--especially before the large rear-seat headrests are folded forward.
The car's powertrain is very similar to that in the larger Prius. A 98-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine is combined with a pair of motor-generators that are powered both by the engine and by a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack. The entire powertrain together produces 134 horsepower altogether. Unfortunately, the battery pack behind the rear seat raises the rear load floor substantially, providing less than a foot of height beneath the roll-out cover that shields contents from public view.
The sporty handling sets the CT 200h apart from most other hybrids, and certainly from the public perception of them as not much fun to drive. It has the best handling of any compact hybrid, although there are really only two other contenders: the new 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid sedan, and the new 2012 Toyota Prius C compact hybrid hatchback. The Prius C comes close for driving fun, but the greater power of the pricier Lexus overcomes its higher weight and makes it feel sportier.
The 2012 Lexus CT 200h offers a choice of three driving modes: Normal, Eco, and Sport. Our favorite by far is Sport, which change the steering feel and remaps throttle and power output settings, providing more electric assist for acceleration. One cool feature: It also changes the blue power gauge in the instrument panel into a red-hued tachometer. The hybrid system still adjusts the engine speed independently of how hard you press the accelerator, so it's more a style statement than an aid for driving. But it's neat to look at nonetheless.
Inside, the occupants sit low, but the CT is surprisingly wide so there's plenty of shoulder room. The rear seats are roomy enough, but the lower seat cushion is short and the door opening are small enough to make getting in and out a bit of a challenge. As with most hatchbacks, the rear seatback folds down to provide a flat load floor--though it's higher than those without battery packs underneath. Two interior features jarred us, though: the Sixties-style pendant parking brake pedal, and the cheap plastic trip odometer reset stalk.
As befits a Lexus, the instrument panel is far more conventional than the Space Age design in the Prius. The list of technology features, both standard and optional, is lengthy. Standard features include keyless ignition, Bluetooth for audio streaming and hands-free calling, full iPod integration, and satellite radio. On top of that, buyers can choose to add LED headlamps, rain-sensing wipers, and many different appearance and performance accessories in the dealer-installed F-Sport line.
That said, the CT 200h doesn't carry off the uber-luxurious tone of the larger Lexus luxury sedans. At a base price of $29,995 including delivery, it's a reasonable bargain, but you can get close to $40,000 if you get enthusiastic in ticking boxes on the options list. For that money, you've blown past even the best-equipped versions of compact hatchbacks from mass brands like the Ford Focus or Volkswagen Golf, and you're right in top-of-the-line Audi A3 TDI territory. Whether Lexus hybrid shoppers are even considering diesel Audis, however, we can't say--but they're two different approaches to green cars that save substantial amounts of fuel.