The 2013 Lexus CT 200h is an interesting, possibly unique, blend of eco-minded hybrid and somewhat sporty character. You won't find it as engaging or responsive to drive as, say, the Audi A3 or the outgoing Volvo C30, its competitors in the small luxury hatchback niche.
Under the hood, the CT is very similar to the larger Toyota Prius: It has a 98-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine paired with the company's two-motor Hybrid Synergy Drive system, producing a total power output of 134 horsepower. As in the Prius, a 1.4-kilowatt-hour nickel-metal-hydride battery pack sits under the rear deck, storing energy produced by the engine and from regenerative braking, and then delivering it back to supplement the engine torque and--at low speeds and under light loads--propel the car alone.
The driving experience at first isn't all that energetic or pulse-raising. But if you ignore the Eco gauge and the substantial coarse roar from the engine when it's pushed hard, the CT 200h gets more promising. By far the most enjoyable driving comes from Sport mode, which contains different and more aggressive control settings for the hybrid performance, power delivery, acceleration, and other control systems. It gives full electric assist at partial throttle, firms up the steering, and changes the power gauge into a red-rimmed tachometer (a surprisingly neat little effect). And it makes the CT feel like it's faster than its 0-to-60-mph time of just under 10 seconds.
Just like the Prius, the CT 200h offers an EV mode. Press a button next to the controller, go light on the accelerator, and--provided the battery is properly charged and a number of other conditions are met--you can drive at up to roughly 25 mph for short distances solely on electric power.
The CT is arguably the best-handling compact hybrid yet. On rougher road surfaces up at the top of a mountain pass during our test drive, the car turned in crisply and could be hustled along surprisingly quickly without jostling passengers. Road harshness was kept out of the cabin, yet the suspension was firm and the electric power steering (in Sport mode) managed to transmit some road feel and actually kick back on rutted surfaces.
Barriers to sportiness, on the other hand, include the Prius-style shift knob, and the omission of paddle shifters to simulate stepped gear changes. Drivers can choose a "B" mode for more engine braking and regeneration on steep downhill grades,but the steady engine drone on long uphills or switchbacks may signal you to slow down even if the car's mechanicals are up to the task.