The Lexus CT200h is the Toyota luxury brand's fifth hybrid offering.

Say the word, “hybrid,” and you’re likely to respond with, “Toyota.”  And for good reason, considering the maker accounts for 75% of the gas-electric vehicles currently on the road, primarily in the form of the Toyota Prius.

But the Japanese maker’s luxury marque has arguably made an even bigger commitment to hybrid technology, with four models already accounting for nearly 15% of its total volume.  Now comes number five and, if Lexus planners have done their homework, the launch of the new CT200h could bump that figure notably higher.

Early on, Lexus saw hybrid technology as a way to deliver better performance without the mileage impact of offering bigger engines.  That controversial approach was abandoned with the launch of the HS250h, the brand’s first dedicated – read: Prius-like – hybrid.  Sadly, the HS proved that there’s still room to deliver a truly mediocre product in today’s market, even senior Lexus officials apologizing for the quirky little cars mostly unappealing quirks.

With the launch of the 2011 Lexus CT200h, the maker hopes to get things in better balance, using its high-tech, Prius-derived drivetrain to not only deliver solid fuel economy, but also to boost the fun-to-drive quotient of what might otherwise be a lackluster Euro-styled hatchback.

The new Lexus CT200h is the smallest offering in the Lexus line-up.

Indeed, the CT really is, at its heart, a car for the European market, where compact size and functionality have become the dominant driver motivators – along with good mileage, of course.

If the basic appearance is familiar, that’s no surprise.  The CT200h is basically a Scion tC that’s been given the Lexus L-finesse styling treatment and that Prius powertrain.  To our pleasant surprise, it’s a more intriguing vehicle to drive than either the tC or the Prius – and a major improvement over the lame HS250h.

Measuring just 170 inches, nose-to-tail, 69.5 inches wide and 57 inches tall, the CT200h is the smallest model in the Lexus fleet.  It’s crossover/wagon-style layout, along with the rather upright seating design belies its small footprint and provides a reasonably roomy package with an acceptable back seat for something this small.

The Lexus CT200h can be operated in four separate modes, three of which are set from this dial.

Where Prius has, if anything, become a more ordinary and less inspiring package, in its fourth generation, when it comes to interior refinement and creature comforts, the Lexus CT200h delivers a lot more of what you’d expect from a vehicle in this segment.  That means such niceties as satellite radio, dual-zone climate control and 17-inch wheels.  We were particularly impressed by the leather seats and the optional bamboo trim.

Considering the target buyer is a Gen-X or Millennial, Lexus has incorporated some nice high-tech features.  That includes a special holder for an iPhone or other Smartphone, which makes it easy to use functions like navigation.  Meanwhile, the mouse-like controller that Lexus introduced on the redesigned RX, in 2009, has migrated to the center console of the CT200h.

A mouse-like controller makes ease of operating vehicle systems on the CT200h.

A significant amount of design work, inside and out, was done with the environment in mind.  The body shape yields a slippery 0.29 drag coefficient.  Interior materials, notably the leathers and plastics, were developed to minimize the use of noxious chemicals, and 80% of the overall vehicle is recyclable, Lexus claims.

Slipping behind the tilt/telescoping wheel you hit the big start button and wait for the gauges to come to life.  Once again, we’d like Lexus to adopt a distinct tone that signals when its hybrid offering is ready to go.

Expect a price tag of around $30,000.

Before you slip into gear you have the option to choose from four different driving modes.  Sounds easy, but it’s a bit confusing, since you can set three – Sport, ECO or Normal, the default — with the twist of a dial, but must press a button for the fourth, EV mode.  In that setting you’ll get a mile or so on pure electric power, at up to 23 mph, depending on how charged up the batteries are.

That gearshift lever, by the way, is another source of complaint.  While it’s better mounted than in the HS250h, where it can jam the knee of a long-legged driver, the design is still too awkwardly minivan-like.  We’d like to see Lexus go to a more conventional shifter, especially if it wants to portray a model like the CT200h as having a sporty character.

The CT200h drivetrain makes a total of 134 horsepower and 105 lb-ft of torque with both the 1.8-liter Atkinson Cycle gas engine and the 500-volt electric driveline engaged.  In an interesting twist, when you’re in Sport Mode, or slam the throttle down in Normal Mode, the system switches to 650-volts for an extra dose of power from the nickel-metal hydride power pack.

Borrowed from the Prius, the electric driveline on the Lexus CT200h operates at 500 volts - except in Sport Mode, when it jumps to 650V.

Even then, acceleration is a bit on the limp side of sporty, with a 0 to 60 time of just 9.8 seconds and a top speed of 112 mph.  The trade-off is that a less heavy-footed driver should get 43 mpg in the EPA’s City cycle, 40 on the highway – and a few mpg more in ECO mode.

The hefty battery drivetrain results in a nose-heavy vehicle, a 60/40 front-to-rear weight balance, though Lexus has done a surprisingly good job of minimizing the apparent imbalance.  It’s also done a good job using lateral dampers, among other things, to minimize noise, vibration and harshness.  It’s the brand’s first use of the technology, which bridges the front shock towers.

Despite its small footprint, the Lexus CT200h has an unexpectedly roomy interior.

Switching between modes does more than impact your acceleration.  In Sport, for example, steering becomes a little heavier to improve, while the throttle becomes more responsive.  Even the gauge cluster changes, the battery status display in the left LCD screen replaced by a tachometer.

In keeping with Lexus policy, the CT200h features an array of safety features, including the new Smart Stop – which can spot and respond to a potential collision even before a distracted motorist – as well as ABS, Stability Control, and 8 airbags.

The left side of this reconfigurable gauge switches from battery status to tachometer in Sport mode.

In the U.K., the Lexus CT200h is going for roughly 23,000 pounds, which would translate into nearly $40,000 here, but American buyers should anticipate rolling out of Lexus showrooms for something closer to $30,000, after a few options and the usual destination charges.

For the money, they’ll get a car that’s a lot more fun to drive than the Toyota Prius – though Lexus is still stretching the definition of sporty.  But compared to the soggy HS250h, the new Lexus CT200h is a welcome addition to the brand’s expanding hybrid line-up.

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