The 2013 Lexus CT 200h may be in its third model year now, but it remains the only occupant of its particular niche: the luxury compact hybrid hatchback. It's the only compact car from the luxury brand, now that it has quietly killed the disappointing HS 250h hybrid sedan after three years on the market and very few sales.
While the CT is smaller inside and out than the Toyota Prius liftback model, it may appeal to some of the same buyers. It's a surprisingly likable, fun-to-drive, and feature-packed little hatchback, and if those car shoppers want the high mileage of a hybrid but also desire a little more luxe than the top-level Prius, the CT 200h may be just the car for them. On launch, it also offered a high degree of technology--which Lexus hoped would attract younger buyers--though it's less striking in that regard than it was in 2011.
The only element of the Lexus CT it shares with the Prius is the powertrain: It has the same 98-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and Hybrid Synergy Drive system. That system uses a pair of electric motor-generators powered by, a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack, located under the rear deck (which gives the CT a disappointingly shallow load bay). The battery stores the electrical energy produced on engine overrun and during regenerative braking, and uses it to power the traction motor to propel the car on electricity only (at low speeds and under light loads) and otherwise supplement the engine torque.
But the CT's secret sauce turns out to be the tuning: It's far sportier behind the wheel, though hardly a hot hatch in the mold of the Volkswagen GTI or Mazda Mazda3. By far the most fun is the clever Sport mode, which remaps the control responses of the accelerator and hybrid system. With full electric assist even at partial throttle, it's got a lot more oomph--and the temptation will be to keep it in Sport mode all the time.
The Sport mode also cleverly converts the power gauge in the instrument cluster into a red-rimmed tachometer, although the hybrid system still controls engine speed separately from accelerator position--making a tach a little superfluous. But it's a neat touch. Sadly, as with seemingly all Toyota products, the electric power steering remains numb--putting the Lexus CT at a disadvantage compared to sportier hatchbacks from luxury brands, like the Audi A3 or the smaller Volvo C30 three-door.
The EPA rates the 2013 Lexus CT 200h at 42 mpg combined; our experience is that real-world mileage in mixed use hovers around 40 mpg. That requires drivers to ignore the roar from the engine as it's revved (and also to ignore the Eco gauge). That's far higher than any hot hatchback, and also higher than the Volkswagen Golf TDI diesel--although VW's research indicates hybrid buyers won't consider diesels and vice versa, so the two cars may not really compete. The CT's closest competitor on mileage is likely the Mazda3 fitted with the new 2.0-liter SkyActiv engine, which is rated at 33 mpg combined but gave us a remarkable 38 mpg over our usual test route.
Design-wise, the CT 200h hatchback is low, with a flat roof and an aggressive mien. It didn't attract a great deal of attention on the streets, but while it's a little slab-sided and chunky from certain angles (and the rear pillars are thick despite small third windows that appear to wrap around from the hatch), the lines are distinctive and suitable. It's fully 6 inches shorter than a Prius, with 4 inches of that coming out of the wheelbase.
Inside, the upscale fittings and luxury elements set it far, far apart from the Prius's swathes of hard plastic and any "economy car" stereotypes that may remain associated with compact hatchbacks. There's a thick center console, with a horizontal and low-slung instrument panel above it stretching from door to door. The console holds lots of controls, befitting the luxury aura, though it will take owners awhile to sort through them and learn the locations of common buttons and knobs.
The front seats are particularly comfortable, with a low and sporty legs-out seating position, though the rear seats are tight for two adults. The rear seat back folds flat, however, which offers a roomy cargo area if just two people are using the CT.
Because it's a Lexus, the features list--both standard and optional--is extensive, with far more items than we could cover here. Standard equipment includes keyless ignition, Bluetooth hands-free audio and voice streaming, fully integrated iPod control, SiriusXM satellite radio, and Lexus Safety Connect. Options include LED headlamps, rain-sensing wipers, and the Lexus real-time navigation and information system called Enform. For CT buyers who want a sportier-looking car--perhaps with stiffer handling and roadholding as well--Lexus dealers can install a full line of F-Sport appearance and performance accessories.
For more details, see the full review of the 2013 Lexus CT 200h on our sister site, TheCarConnection.