Just as in the Prius, the hybrid powertrain combines a 98-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine with a 650-volt (battery peak 36-hp) electric motor system, altogether making 134 horsepower, and as you nudge the little Prius-style shift lever over and down to 'D' and get underway, it doesn't feel particularly energetic or pulse-raising. Learn to ignore the little Eco gauge and the not at all sporty protestations of the engine and put your right foot into it a little more, and it's more promising.
Just below the sound system there's a dial. Twist it to the left and you enter Eco mode, which has muted throttle responses and limits drive voltage (except under full throttle) to 500 volts. Press the controller to return to Normal, or if you're the target customer for the CT you'll probably like Sport mode, which reduces power-steering assist, provides a more aggressive tip in and throttle calibration, and brings a peak electric-motor boost of 650 volts even at partial throttle. If you're going to Sport, from Eco or Norm, the projected face of the analog Eco gauge at the left of the gauge cluster changes and it becomes a tachometer; and just to remind you, the color projected down onto the gauge cluster changes from blue to red.
Switch the CT over to Sport mode, and although we felt no real difference from normal on a steep grade it really does feel more eager when squeezing the throttle to ease into a gap in traffic, or taking off out of a tight corner. Engaging Sport mode also enables a performance calibration for the traction and stability control; we noted the difference between modes on a tight side-road right-hander; we floored the accelerator out of a tight, low-speed corner first in Normal, then in Sport. While the inside front wheel squealed loose both times, we noted that Sport mode doesn't break momentum in the same way by cutting engine power.
Lexus has said that the CT takes just under ten seconds to get to 60 mph (slightly faster than the Prius). During most of our few hours and 120-plus miles with the CT, we drove in Sport mode; there, thanks to the earlier electric boost and more aggressive tip-in it almost feels like a sporty-handling hatchback with a larger-displacement four.
The CT is arguably the best-handling compact hybrid vehicle yet. As we experienced over the rougher road surfaces up at the top of the pass, the CT 200h turns in crisply and can be hustled along surprisingly quickly without jostling passengers; road harshness is kept out of the cabin, yet the suspension is quite firm and the steering manages (in Sport mode) to transmit some road feel and actually kick back on rutted surfaces.
One of the keys to producing such a responsive-feeling vehicle without bringing harshness inside is a reenforcement brace between the front strut towers, incorporating a gas-charged damper in the middle. In back there's a similar solution, and altogether the strategy pays dividends. Combined with that are grippy 245-width, 17-inch rubber and Yamaha dampers that were specially designed for the CT. In quick transitions it feels nimble, not bloated like the HS sedan.
There are a few decidedly un-sporty hurdles for the CT. The Prius-style shift knob just feels a little out of place in a sportier vehicle, and you won't find paddle-shifters as Toyota's hybrid system allows no provision for selecting an individual ratio for steep grades or maintaining control on curvy roads. For steep downhill grades, you can access more engine braking, as in the Prius, by selecting the 'B' mode with the shift knob, but on long uphills the steady drone of the engine, even though relatively quiet, can be a psychological barrier even if the CT's planetary-gear mechanicals are up to the task.
Just like in the Prius, the CT includes an EV mode. Press a button next to the controller, and provided the battery is properly charged, you go light on the accelerator, and a number of other conditions are met, you can drive for short distances (into parking structures and such) on electric power only—up to about 23 mph on level ground.