The Lexus CT 200h has been turning a lot of heads around the automotive industry lately as pre-production vehicles start to make the review rounds. AllSmallCars.com recently participated in one of these ride and drive reviews in the once devastated, but now blossoming city of New Orleans. What better place to test out the EV functionality of the newest hybrid member of the Lexus model line up than in the French Quarter or along the scenic by-ways outside of the city. The most interesting part of the Lexus CT 200h isn’t the features it comes with or the likelihood that it will come in under the MSRP of the IS 250 or even the gas mileage (considering it is using a Prius drivetrain). No, the most interesting part of the car is how it drives.

We can tell you a lot about the marketing behind the new Lexus CT200h, as you might already know from our article published earlier. However, what everyone really wants to know is what it is like and for the people in the target 30-40 year old demographic the perspective of this 25 year old might be refreshing. The CT 200h isn’t what you might expect to come out of the Lexus styling department since it is truly a 5-door hatchback. You also might not expect the additional bracing, performance dampers in front and rear (reduces road vibration transference), sport mode with electronically adjusting power steering and vibrant color options. In fact, the Lexus CT 200h looks the part of a Mazdaspeed3 or Volvo C30, but can it keep up in the driving department?

The answer is—it depends. If you are looking to move up to a luxury vehicle with the possibilities of navigation, rear-view camera, heated seats, Bluetooth connectivity AND want all the benefits of driving something almost as green as a Prius then this might be the vehicle for you. If you want to drive a sports car and love the sound and experience of driving a manual or paddle shift car then this might not be the car for you. The CT 200h has great road holding characteristics along with an incredibly smooth transmission and EV to gasoline switching method. That said, the 0-60 time of somewhere near 9.5 seconds won’t nail you back into your seats, but it will allow you to get an EPA estimated combined mileage of 42 mpg. If you are driving on the highway you will see an EPA estimated 40 mpg and for the city only dwellers an EPA estimate of 43 mpg. Of course for the hyper-milers out there you can increase that mileage quite a bit.

Let’s be clear though, the Lexus is no dog out on the road, especially with its four different modes: Normal, ECO, Sport and EV. Sport mode is by far the most enjoyable to drive the car in if you are in a hurry or trying to tackle some particularly winding roads. However, the surprising part of the car is how easy it is to drive in EV mode around the city. During our trip in one of several CT 200h vehicles, we were able to drive from the riverfront over to the French Quarter in New Orleans completely on electric power. Even more impressive is that we were able to get up to speeds nearing 20 mph (about as fast as you can get in Canal street traffic). ECO mode really serves to help you more drive efficiently by requiring the driver to use more throttle input to achieve the same level of acceleration you might get in Normal mode with a lesser throttle input. Sport, as you might have guessed, is the opposite allowing less throttle input and giving you greater acceleration than you would get with the same level of input in Normal mode.

No matter what mode you drive the CT 200h in, the car has very little wind noise (though I did find the road noise a little louder than I would have liked) and with 60/40 front to rear weight distribution and a MacPherson strut front suspension and double a-arm rear suspension, the CT handles as well as any compact hatch I have driven recently. It is important to note here that Lexus has gotten the electric steering right on this car with good center feel and steering resistance in Normal mode. For the more spirited driving, Sport mode will tighten it up even more and give a slightly heaver feel for more precise cornering. If anything, we wish it had more power to pull the vehicle out of corners, but then you sacrifice mpg—as Kermit said, “It isn’t easy being green.” It also isn’t necessarily easy to see out of the back window, but again, with the reverse camera and large mirrors we believe it is something you would get used to and for most well worth the safety and rigidity the body design adds to the car.

Bottom line—the Lexus CT 200h is everything that is missing from the Prius: sharp, luxurious and probably the most “driver” oriented hybrid we have driven. Just don’t be lulled into the idea that you will be buying a turbo-charged pocket rocket…instead set your sights to performance akin to a TDI. Expect the Lexus CT 200h to roll into dealers in March 2011.

Be sure to check out our recent article on how Lexus is looking to market the CT 200h.