Pros: Great fuel economy, high-quality interior, quiet at speed, supportive front seats.

Cons: Leisurely acceleration, cramped back seat, firm ride, not as sporty as Lexus claims.

Introduction

The 2012 Lexus CT 200h is an attempt to bridge the gap between stellar fuel economy and a sport-luxury driving experience. Typically, you have to choose one or the other. There are plenty of fuel-sipping conveyances humming around these days, and of course there's never a shortage of premium cars with agile handling. But if you want all of the above in a single set of wheels, take a look at the CT200h, says Lexus. It just might be the only game in town.

We weren't sold, so we decided to take a closer look at what makes the CT 200h tick. As it turns out, the CT's underlying platform is the same one used for the Toyota Matrix hatchback and the Toyota Corolla compact sedan. Not the strongest foundation for a sporting luxury car, perhaps. Moreover, the CT is powered by the same gas-electric hybrid power plant as the Toyota Prius. As such, the CT rolls with 134 horsepower that's routed through a continuously variable automatic transmission, which isn't exactly the best recipe for getting a driver's pulse pounding.

But as long as you don't care about track-ready handling or swift acceleration, the relatively affordable CT could very well hit the spot. It's got stellar interior quality, and although 43 mpg in the city isn't Prius-perfect, it's nothing to sneeze at, either. The CT is hardly a substitute for genuine sport-luxury vehicles like the BMW 3 Series, but it does manage to be both cheaper and better on gas. Depending on your priorities, the 2012 Lexus CT 200h might end up being the perfect mix.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Lexus CT 200h four-door hatchback comes in two trim levels: base and Premium.

Standard features on the base model include 17-inch alloy wheels, leatherette upholstery that's supposedly manufactured in an environmentally friendly fashion, a power driver's seat with adjustable lumbar support, a manual passenger seat, electroluminescent gauges with a hybrid status monitor, a trip computer, dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth and a six-speaker audio system with iPod connectivity and a USB port.

The Premium adds a sunroof, heated front seats and exclusive eligibility for a handful of options packages. The Premium Audio package features a 10-speaker audio system with a six-CD changer and an auto-dimming inside mirror, while the Navigation package contributes a hard-drive-based navigation system with a power-retractable display screen, a rearview camera and voice-recognition software, as well as the Lexus Enform telematics suite with Safety Connect (see "Technology," below). The Leather package adds leather upholstery, driver memory functions, auto-dimming side mirrors with auto-tilt in reverse and rain-sensing wipers. The F Sport package tacks on a sport-tuned suspension, different 17-inch alloys and various sport-themed styling cues. Note that both the Navigation and the Leather packages require the Premium Audio package.

Plop down in the 'driver's seat and we think you'll agree that Lexus has given this hybrid a decidedly sporty interior vibe. The seat itself is low-slung and pleasantly snug, while the central control panel rises rakishly toward the dashboard in a cockpit-like fashion. The racy three-spoke steering wheel (even sportier with the F Sport package) adds to the effect.

We've poked and prodded everything the CT's cabin has to offer, and we can report that the quality of the materials is outstanding for this price point. The crisp electroluminescent gauges exude a similarly premium attitude. The only memorable disappointment is that manually adjustable passenger seat, which is mandatory even on the Premium trim level, oddly enough. Why would a Lexus not offer a power passenger seat?

Okay, we take that back. There' is a second memorable disappointment, and it's called the CT's back seat. Because the CT 200h is a luxury car, it's easy to forget that it's roughly the size of a Ford Focus, and it's got similarly cramped rear quarters. If a six-footer's behind the wheel, you can forget about squeezing an adult in back with any semblance of comfort.

Thanks in part to the battery pack located beneath the load floor, the CT 200h doesn't have much in the way of cargo capacity. Trunk space measures just 14.3 cubic feet, which is tiny for a hatchback, while folding the rear seatbacks down opens up a maximum of 32.3 cubic feet. For reference, the Prius can swallow almost 40 cubic feet of stuff despite carrying the same box of batteries.

Technology

As you'd expect of a luxury hybrid, the CT 200h mostly has its technological bases covered. In addition to all the hybrid-specific gauges and readouts, the CT boasts standard iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity, a tech trifecta that gadget fans will surely appreciate. The news only gets better with the available hard-drive-based navigation system, which operates via Lexus's unusual mouse-like controller and features a slick retractable display screen atop the dashboard. We'd like to see more sophisticated graphics on that screen, but the system's functionality is solid.

CTs with the Navigation package also get the Enform telematics system. Enform lets you plan trips from home using a Lexus-exclusive online search called eDestination, or leverage your smartphone for this purpose with the Enform mobile app. Destination Assist provides live navigation assistance from Lexus's 24-hour response center. Both features are facilitated by direct communication with the CT's navigation system.

Note that Toyota's Entune system, which uses smartphone data connections to integrate mobile apps like Pandora into the driving experience, won't be offered in Lexus form until the 2013 model year.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The front-wheel-drive CT 200h is motivated by a team consisting of a 1.8-liter inline-4 and an electric motor supported by a nickel metal hydride battery pack. Total system power is 134 horsepower. If these details seem familiar, well, they are: the Prius uses the same system. As in the Prius, the transmission is a continuously variable automatic (CVT). Not surprisingly, the CT 200h is a slow car. The sporty driving position initially had us excited, but this Lexus just doesn't have enough power to compete with anything quicker than an economy hatchback.

Speaking of economy, the CT is great on gas, if not quite at the Prius's level. The EPA rates the CT at  43 mpg city/40 mpg highway.

Safety

The 2012 Lexus CT 200h comes with standard stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes and eight airbags (front, front side, front knee and full-length side-curtain). All models feature Safety Connect, an emergency assistance program that uses the same 24-hour response center as the Enform system to get you the help you need.

The government has not crash-tested the CT as of this writing, but the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the CT its highest rating of "Good" in every testing category.

Driving Impressions

The Lexus CT 200h is one of those cars that feel sporty until you start pushing the pace. When we attempted to hustle the CT along some winding roads, we were repeatedly slapped down by the intrusive, always-on stability control system, which seems calibrated to prevent even the slightest squeal from the tires. The F Sport package's sport-tuned suspension strikes us as pointless because it's got the same conservative stability-control threshold, and it makes the CT's already firm ride even less compliant. On the bright side, road and wind noise are exceptionally well-suppressed.

Other Cars to Consider

Toyota Prius - Since it has the same powertrain, the cheaper Prius is a natural reference point. Interestingly, the Prius has a significant advantage for 2012: it's available with the Entune mobile-app system, which won't be offered in Lexus guise till next year.

Volkswagen Golf TDI - We could have mentioned the Audi A3 TDI here, as it's the CT 200h's natural rival, but we're pointing you to the Golf instead because it offers almost all of the A3's goodness in a more affordable package. Either way, the excellent TDI turbodiesel engine outdoes the CT's hybrid system on the highway, though it's a no-contest win for the Lexus in urban driving.

Honda CR-Z - Maybe we're reaching here, but the CR-Z could be an interesting alternative if you don't care about having a back seat. Its hybrid-powered fuel economy isn't quite as awesome as the CT's, but the two-seat CR-Z makes up for it with sportier handling and a pretty cool interior of its own.

AutoTrader Recommends

We'd want the Navigation package in our CT 200h, but we could definitely do without the Leather and F Sport packages. The CT 200h with Navigation is a good middle-ground option.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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