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Entering its third model year, the 2013 Lexus CT 200h still occupies a category of one: It's the sole compact luxury hybrid hatchback offered in the U.S. today. It's a surprisingly likable, fun-to-drive, and feature-packed entry for Lexus, and it redeems the brand after the disappointing HS 250h hybrid sedan, which quietly vanished after just three years on the market.
The CT 200h is likely to appeal both to Prius owners ready for a little more luxe in their driving lives and first-time entry luxury buyers, including the younger, more tech-savvy drivers that Lexus hopes the car will reach.
As the first hatchback Lexus, the CT 200h is low, aggressive-looking, and carries elements of hot-hatch design like the MazdaSpeed3. Its upscale design and fittings inside keep it miles away from the old "econobox" stereotype of small hatchbacks. The low-set, horizontal instrument panel includes a thick center console that holds lots of controls--a mating of hybrid tech with luxury design cues.
The Lexus CT is mechanically similar to the Toyota Prius, with the same 98-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and Hybrid Synergy Drive system. The pair of electric motor-generators sends power to, and is powered by, a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack under the rear deck that stores energy produced on engine overrun and regenerative braking, and then delivers it back to supplement the engine torque and--under light loads at low speeds-- propel the car electrically.
The CT has been very differently tuned than the Prius, to make it a more sporty drive. Its clever Sport mode changes the electronic responses of most of the controls, giving full electric assist at partial throttle and neatly converting the power gauge into a red-rimmed tachometer. Unfortunately, the CT's electric power steering remains more numb than the feedback offered in sporty hatches like the Audi A3 or Volvo C30.
No hot hatchback can deliver anything like the CT 200h combined EPA rating of 42 mpg, which is likely to hover around 40 mpg in real-world usage. (The closest match may be the new SkyActiv 2.0-liter engine offered in the Mazda3, which returned more than 35 mpg in our road test.) Learn to ignore the CT's Eco gauge and endure the loud engine roar when it's revved, and you'll have fun driving and still get gas mileage at the top of the charts.
The interior of the 2013 Lexus CT is roomy, despite being about 4 inches shorter in the wheelbase than a Prius, almost 6 inches shorter overall. The driving position is particularly good, putting the driver low--which feels sportier--and offering generous headroom. Rear seats are tighter for adults, but they fold flat, giving a roomy cargo area if only two people are using the car.
The list of standard and optional features is long, as you would expect from a Lexus. Fully integrated iPod control, keyless ignition, Bluetooth hands-free voice and audio streaming, SiriusXM satellite radio, and Lexus Safety Connect are all standard. The many options include the Lexus Enform real-time information and navigation system, rain-sensing wipers, and LED headlamps. Dealers can also install a full line of performance and appearance accessories under the F-Sport label.