The 2012 Lexus CT 200h is pitched as an alternative that's a little sportier than other eco-minded hybrids, and mostly that's true. But you won't find its performance to be as engaging or responsive as that of other entry-luxury hatchbacks like the Audi A3 or Volvo C30.
Mechanically, there's much in common with the 2012 Prius; You'll find the same 98-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine with a 650-volt (battery peak 36-hp) electric motor system, altogether making 134 horsepower. And just as in the Prius, a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack under the rear deck stores energy produced by the engine and from regenerative braking, using it to supplement the engine torque and, at low speeds, propel the car alone.
As you nudge the little Prius-style shift lever over and down to 'D,' and first get underway, the CT driving experience isn't particularly energetic or pulse-raising. But 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.The key difference from the Prius is the way that the CT 200h is tuned--electronically, of course. A Sport mode changes most of the controls, giving full electric assist at partial throttle, firming up the steering, and changing the power gauge into a red-rimmed tachometer. Lexus has said that the CT takes just under ten seconds to get to 60 mph (slightly faster than the Prius), but if you drive in Sport mode (and again ignore the coarse sound of the engine, a psychological barrier of sorts), it responds and accelerates as if it had a larger four under the hood.
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.
The CT 200h includes an EV mode, as does the Prius. 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 at speeds of up to about 23 mph for short distances (into parking structures and such) on electric power only.
While the Lexus has tried hard to make the CT 200h feel sporty, there are some ways that it's simply not. One barrier is the Prius-style shift knob, and the lack of paddle-shifters. For steep downhill grades, there's a 'B' mode that allows more engine braking, but in any case on long uphills or switchbacks, the steady drone of the engine might signal you to slow down, even if the CT's stout planetary-gear mechanicals are up to the task.