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2011 Lexus CT 200h

More is better and apparently Lexus believes this applies to its expanding lineup of gasoline-electric hybrids.

The impending launch of the CT 200h that shows up in early 2011 brings to five the number of gas-electric hybrid models from Toyota’s up-market branch. Some are regular Lexus cars fitted with hybrid systems, while others, such as the HS 250h sedan, are available only with hybrid propulsion.

The new CT 200h slots into the same category as the HS, although the CT is more modestly sized and combines a practical hatchback shape with the sort of exemplary fuel economy for which Lexus hybrids are famous.

The small Lexus is also aimed at a distinctly younger audience and casts a similar shadow to the youth-oriented Nissan Versa hatchback. It also shares that car’s overall length and distance between the front and rear wheels. The CT’s slinkier shape means considerably less usable cargo space than the Versa, yet its flat-folding back seats add a level of practicality that fans of this body style will appreciate.

Fortunately, the CT’s styling exudes a certain Lexus look that should ensure it won’t be confused with hatches costing thousands of dollars less. The front end evokes images of the IS-series sedans, while the unique-to-Lexus rear access door straddles the line between hatchback and wagon. Lexus doesn’t use either term in describing its latest vehicle, leaving the descriptor up to the viewer.

The CT’s Toyota-Prius-based hybrid system consists of a 98-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine that combines with a 60-kilowatt electric motor to produce a net total system output of 134 horses. That’s considerably less than the output produced by the HS 250h’s 187 combined horsepower (a powertrain that’s largely borrowed from the Camry Hybrid). The heavier-by-about-550-pounds HS can muscle its way to 60 mph in a Lexus-timed 8.4 seconds, while the CT gets to 60 in a more sedate 9.8 seconds.

However, current and prospective hybrid car buyers are likely more concerned about fuel efficiency than all-out performance. In this respect the CT stands out with an estimated 42 mpg in the city and 41 mpg on the highway to earn the title of Lexus’s thriftiest vehicle.As with all Lexus/Toyota hybrids, an efficient continuously variable transmission completes the drivetrain.

Assisting in the CT’s fuel-saving process is a choice of EV (electric only), ECO, Normal and Sport drive modes. The EV setting allows the car to travel up to one mile at speeds up to 28 mph on battery power alone. The gas engine will engage and assist the electric motor if rapid acceleration is called for. The Sport mode adds a bit more hybrid-style zing by increasing the electric motor’s voltage to 650 from the Normal setting’s 500-volt output.

The CT’s gauge package indicates which of the hybrid’s drive systems are in operation as well as the real-time fuel efficiency as dictated by your driving style.Other energy-efficiency helpers include available light-emitting diode (LED) headlights that consume less power than standard halogen headlights, and a special amplifier for the audio system that requires less operating power.

Along with the CT’s sporty driving persona, Lexus engineers have tried to ensure that the car’s road manners differentiate it from the rest of the pack. For example, the chassis setup features a special front and rear damper system that’s integrated with the engine mounts to help prevent chassis vibrations and road noise from entering the cabin.

CT customers can expect a full suite of the usual Lexus creature comforts and safety features, although you’ll pay extra for leather seats since environmentally friendly faux-leather coverings come standard.

Once the shock wears off of seeing a Lexus this small and with an extra door in back, the CT 200h stands a good chance of capturing the attention of a younger group of buyers who can afford to spend about $30,000 on a cool and green hybrid ride. That would make Lexus’s least expensive model an attractive choice in more ways than one.