Dear Lexus: In the past we may have suggested your cars were somewhat boring, especially the HS 250h hybrid sedan we tested, which felt more Prius than premium. Now that we've driven your new CT 200h hybrid, we have to ask: Is this really a Lexus?
Appearance: The CT 200h doesn't scream "hybrid" or even Lexus. This five-door hatchback looks more like something from Mazda's design house, with its long hood, flared fenders and sharp body creases. (The chrome-edged grille, however, is all Lexus.) The roofline slopes gently toward the back to the hatch and its integrated top spoiler. The glass of the hatch wraps around the body.
Performance: The front-wheel-drive CT 200h has a 1.8-liter four-cylinder gas engine and an electric motor that combine to put out 134 horsepower. There are four adjustable driving modes; we found acceleration sluggish (0-60 in 9.8 seconds) and preferred the Sport setting. Where the car makes up for its lack of get-up-and-go is in handling; the low-riding CT 200h feels grounded, has good steering feedback and corners precisely, thanks to a more sport-tuned, independent suspension. The transmission is an Electronically controlled Continuously Variable Transmission (ECVT). As with all hybrids, it has regenerative braking, which can take some getting used to.
Interior: The CT 200h, which is the lowest-priced car in the Lexus line, is entry-level luxury in a compact car. As such, some of the interior controls are not premium materials. Overall, we liked the cabin, a mix of faux aluminum trimmed in ecru and black, and found most of the controls intuitive. The NuLuxe seats are comfortable and made of environmentally friendly synthetic leather. (They felt like the real thing.) We liked the Remote Touch controller — similar to a computer mouse — for the navigation/audio screen, which folds flat on the dash. The controller is a nice Lexus touch. It's much more friendly than a touchscreen. Not so friendly: We both found the shifter knob annoying. You push it forward for reverse and pull backward for drive. It's counterintuitive. Why can't hybrids have a more normal shifter? There also is a cellphone holder that seems practical at first, but it's flimsy and can get in the way when you reach for some of the console controls. The rear seats fold flat, and the cargo area has more than 30 cubic feet of space.
Our 3 favorites
Stylish: All it needs is for an import tuner to give it a makeover.
Ride: The CT 200h corners tightly, especially in Sport mode.
Lexus: Kudos to a carmaker we've criticized for its bland styling.
NuLuxe seats: An environmentally friendly and comfortable alternative to leather.
Cargo space: Plenty of space for groceries and more.
Fun yet practical: A zippy ride getting up to 43 mpg.
The bottom line: If you are in the market for a stylish compact car that gets good gas mileage but doesn't scream "hybrid," then this is a strong contender. It's also a Lexus that seems within reach, with a starting price near $30,000.