2011 Lexus CT 200h compact hybrid hatchback, road test, June 2011

2011 Lexus CT 200h compact hybrid hatchback, road test, June 2011

The 2011 Lexus CT 200h pretty much occupies a class of one.

At the moment, it’s the sole luxury compact hybrid hatchback sold in the U.S.

And it’s a dedicated hybrid, meaning there’s no gasoline-only version. If you want the compact hatch, you get the hybrid.

It’s also terra incognita for Lexus, which is better known for its luxury sedans but actually sells more of its RX luxury midsize crossover utility than any other model.

The unusual marketing campaign for the CT—“The Darker Side of Green”—bears witness to the brand’s goal of attracting a younger, hipper, more environmentally aware buyer.

The Lexus CT is the least expensive Lexus in the range, starting at roughly $6,000 more than the Toyota Prius with which it shares an engine and Hybrid Synergy Drive system.

2011 Lexus CT 200h compact hybrid hatchback, road test, June 2011

2011 Lexus CT 200h compact hybrid hatchback, road test, June 2011

While the base price of our CT 200h test car was $30,900, the actual sticker was a steeper $36,725. That included the premium audio package ($1,100), the very nice Leather Package ($1,330), and the Navigation System at a stunning $2,445.

We also had the cargo net (highly recommended at $75) and $875 of mandatory delivery fee, meaning that our $30K luxury compact would likely be more than $40K with state taxes added.

We’re not clear on exactly what cars might be cross-shopped against the Lexus CT. We could imagine the 2011 Volkswagen Golf TDI, the clean-diesel version of VW’s workaday hatchback.

Or perhaps it’s the very highest-end versions of the ur-hybrid, the 2011 Toyota Prius itself, which can stretch into the mid-30s by adding options like the solar moonroof.

2011 Lexus CT 200h compact hybrid hatchback, road test, June 2011

2011 Lexus CT 200h compact hybrid hatchback, road test, June 2011

Still, the Prius is top-rated at 50 mpg on the EPA combined cycle, versus the slightly lower 42 mpg of the Lexus CT—and the Prius is defined as a midsize car by interior volume, while the CT is clearly a compact.

But if the Lexus CT ever gets compared to the most luxurious versions of capable compact hatchbacks like the more powerful 2012 Ford Focus (with 160 hp and an EPA combined average of 31 mpg), we worry for its future.

The upper-end Focus Titanium trim level of the Focus includes luxury features like rear-view camera, push-button start, and HD radio, and a few that the 2011 CT 200h doesn't offer, like Ford's very good active parking assist.

Even loading on every feature, a Focus Titanium tops out at roughly $10,000 less than the CT. We're not sure many buyers will cross-shop the two, but if they do, they may conclude that the lure of the Lexus name and higher mileage may not be worth that differential.

Hardly an attention-seeker

The 2011 Lexus CT 200h is a somewhat squat-looking five-door compact hatchback. It has none of the gee-whiz design elements of the Toyota Prius (with which it shares large portions of its drivetrain). Nor are its lines particularly daring, as they are on the 2012 Ford Focus hatchback—which is likely to sell in volumes 10 times greater, or more.

2011 Lexus CT 200h compact hybrid hatchback, road test, June 2011

2011 Lexus CT 200h compact hybrid hatchback, road test, June 2011

Indeed, the Lexus CT attracted not a single comment, glance, or turned head during our entire test. This may have been due to the muted metallic brown color—known as Fire Agate Pearl—but we think it may be an invisible luxury car.

Or perhaps any compact hatchback, no matter how it’s labeled or styled, is perceived as an economy car and consequently ignored?

Inside, we liked the restrained Lexus design approach. We’re not huge fans of the 2011 Toyota Prius “flying buttress” center stack design, and it was good to see that Lexus had a conventional console and armrest.

That armrest wasn’t designed for driving, though. The Lexus controller for navigating through the menus on the navigation system is particularly good, with side-click button that lend it an intuitive mouse-like feel. And it’s comfortable for the driver to prop an elbow on the padded top of the compartment between the seats to use what we came to call “the mouse.”

Unfortunately, the driver’s right elbow sits on an uncomfortable stretch of hard plastic between that padded top and the controller. And the padded top doesn’t slide forward. Owww.

Leaked 2011 Lexus CT 200h images

Leaked 2011 Lexus CT 200h images

From stodgy to Sport

The 2011 Lexus CT 200h pairs a 1.8-liter engine with two electric motor-generators in the Toyota Hybrid Synergy drive system, for a combined total power of 134 hp. It can run solely on electric power at low speeds and under light loads, though not quite as much as the lighter Toyota Prius with which it shares its powertrain.

Like any vehicle with Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system, the CT 200h will perform on demand. But it doesn’t sound particularly happy doing it. Like its larger sedan brother, the Lexus HS 250h, it has enough sound insulation to mask the worst of the howling engine noise when high power is demanded. But it’s not inspiring to drive.

Unless, that is, you discover Sport mode. Of the three drive modes—Normal, Eco, and Sport—the only one worth discussing is Sport. Eco is what you’d expect: the car provides slower and more grudging acceleration, a feeling as though it’s trapped in molasses.

2011 Lexus CT 200h compact hybrid hatchback, road test, June 2011

2011 Lexus CT 200h compact hybrid hatchback, road test, June 2011

But Sport mode actually turns the CT into some approximation of a “hot hatch” like the fabled Volkswagen GTI. No, it’s far from competitive with the GTI, but it feels like it could be.

The remapped engine-control software and transmission algorithms mean that while the engine still howls under acceleration, it spools up more quickly and almost sounds eager to do so. The howl changes from resentful or apologetic to eager.

Sport mode makes the CT considerably quicker off the line, though like many hybrids with small engines, it runs out of steam at higher speeds. But during several dozen miles in Sport mode—after two days running the car in Normal and Eco—the transformation entertained us and really changed the personality of the car. It’s that much fun.

2011 Lexus CT 200h interior

2011 Lexus CT 200h interior

Sport mode offers one undeniably cool feature: the power gauge in the left part of the instrument cluster metamorphoses into a tachometer, with red graphics replacing cool blue and a needle that swings wildly as the engine revs.

You don’t actually drive using the tach, of course; it’s a hybrid, so the control software decides what speed the engine should run at, depending on how fast you accelerate, the battery charge, and so forth.

But it’s cool to watch the gauge change identities, like the center information display in the 2011 Nissan Juke we recently reviewed. Bring on more multiple-personality gauges, we say.

Perhaps the most important rating, at least for someone who will pay the better part of $40K for a compact hatchback, is the gas mileage. The EPA rates the 2011 CT 200h at an impressive 43 mpg city, 40 mpg highway, for a combined rating of 42 mpg.

In our 500-mile test, covering perhaps two-thirds highway and one-third mixed around town and rural use, we registered an overall 40.6 mpg.

Comfortable in front

We enjoyed spending time in the leather-clad front seats of our high-spec 2011 Lexus CT 200h. They were comfortable, the driver’s seat was adjustable, and it was nice to know that the front seats were heated—although spring warmth didn’t give us a chance to test them.

2011 Lexus CT 200h interior

2011 Lexus CT 200h interior

While the front seats were roomy and comfortable, the rear seats are a mixed bag. There’s enough room in the rear to fit a pair of 6-foot adults, but getting in and out is a challenge—we repeatedly caught our feet on the small door openings—and the rear seat cushion is both short and oddly canted forward.

The rear seat isn’t a place we’d choose to spend time, other than perhaps a quick jaunt from the yacht club to the mansion.

Our CT had a handful of odd omissions and features.

2011 Lexus CT 200h compact hybrid hatchback, road test, June 2011

2011 Lexus CT 200h compact hybrid hatchback, road test, June 2011

There was no hatch release button on the keyfob, for instance. The parking brake was a pendant-style foot pedal, reminiscent of a Seventies Dodge Aspen.

And given its level of electronics, we were startled to find the trip odometer had to be summoned not by navigating through menus but by pushing a plastic stalk sticking out from the instrument cluster.

Mixed grades for visibility

The 2011 Lexus CT 200h is rated a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) for its occupant protection in crash tests and its standard safety features.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has not yet rated the 2011 Lexus CT 200h for crash safety.

2011 Lexus CT 200h compact hybrid hatchback, road test, June 2011

2011 Lexus CT 200h compact hybrid hatchback, road test, June 2011

The CT comes with eight airbags as standard. But its outward visibility, an area in which more and more modern cars are deficient, gets mixed grades.

With the rear-seat headrests up, rear vision was lousy. But to its credit, Lexus provides fold-down headrests in the rear, so we were able to see out the full width of the slot-like rear window.

The large blind spots in the rear quarters remained, but at least the rear-view mirror didn’t seem like it was limited to a keyhole. The backup camera—part of that pricey navigation package—proved useful for fitting the CT into tight parking spaces, one of the benefits of a compact hatchback.

Overall

We enjoyed our time with the 2011 Lexus CT 200h. It handles well, was comfortable to drive, included a slew of luxury features, and returned a consistent 40 mpg no matter how or where we drove.

We hope the CT succeeds in establishing a beachhead for Lexus in this new segment of one. Right now, it's the sole compact luxury hybrid hatchback on the market. Nothing matches it for its mix of luxury features and high gas mileage.

We'll be curious to see if the lure of gas mileage mixed with luxury brings new buyers to Lexus--and, perhaps even more so, into the compact hatchback market.

Lexus provided this test vehicle to High Gear Media to enable us to bring you this first-person drive report.

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