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2012 Lexus CT 200h F-Sport: A genuinely sporty hybrid

Prius technology plus good looks and suspension tuning equals more fun per mile
by: LEXUS MOTORS The 2012 Lexus CT 200h not only looks good but drives great for a hybrid.

Slicing through the hilly roads on the way home, it was easy to forget the 2012 Lexus CT 200h F-Sport is really an upscale Prius with a tweaked suspension. Toyota's long-running hybrid has been called many things over the years, including sensible and environmentally responsible. One thing is has not been called is sporty. But dressed up as the CT 200h, the Prius is genuinely fun to drive, especially with the sport tuned suspension that comes with the F-Sport package.

Some automakers are taking big risks in the pursuit of better fuel economy. The Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus, Mitsubishi i and Smart ForTwo Electric are genuine all-electric vehicles that use no fossil fuel. The Chevy Volt and Fisker Karma are EVs that use on-board gas-powered generators to power their electric motors when their batteries run low. Some companies are even looking at hydrogen technology.

Toyota is taking a more conservative route. It is expanding the number and variety of vehicles based on the basic hybrid running gear of the Prius that first debuted in 1997. And why not? Although the original Prius seemed weird and complicated, it has become mainstream over the last 14 years.

Using an electric motor in connection with a gas engine to boost mileage now seems normal. In the currently version of the Prius, a 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder engine is mated to an electric motor that produced a combined 134 horsepower. Many manufacturers currently offer their own hybrids, although none is as economical as the Prius, which routinely gets around 50 miles per gallon.

Toyota began expanding their Prius-based cars last year with the CT 200h, a premium compact car sold through their Lexus luxury line. The sportier styling and attractive leather-lined interior helped distract from the fact that the drive train with the same as the Prius, complete with the different driving modes - Eco, Normal, Sport and EV, in which is can go up to 28 miles per hours for a mile on all-electric power. The CT 200h also handled much better than the Prius, making it a genuine choice for enthusiasts who want good mileage.

This year Lexus ups the ante by offering an F-Sport package on the CT 200h. F-Sport is the designation for high-performance options offered on a number of Lexus models. They range from suspension upgrades to bigger brakes and sport tuned exhaust systems. The F-Sport package on the CT 200h includes a sport tune suspension and special wheels and tires in addition to a bigger from air dam and interior trim pieces. The result not only looks good, but is even more fun to drive than the base version.

Not that it is fast. To the contrary, the CT 200h still accelerates like a hybrid, which means leisurely. Although responses feel better in the Sport mode, even then, the CT 200h is not going to win many races. But once it gets rolling, the car feels much more nimble than a Prius, encouraging drivers to search out twisty roads.

Back-to-back comparisons with a new Prius show just how different the two cars are. The Prius is designed to look unconventional. The wedge-shaped exterior is distinctive if not attractive, while the Jetson-style interior is roomy but a constant reminder you are not in a normal car. The ride is smooth but almost completely detached from the road, with virtually no feedback coming through the steering wheel, although it is leather-wrapped.

On the other hand, the CT 200h resembles several other sporty compact hatchbacks, including the Audi A3, Mazda3 and Volvo C30. The interior is so car-like that only the distinctive transmission shift lever reveals the Prius underpinnings. And the road feel come through both the supple suspension and leather-wrapped steering wheel.

All this style and fun comes at a cost compared to a Prius, of course. Interior space is more limited, especially behind the rear seats, which can be folded down if needed. And the mileage is not as good, although we averaged a respectable 38 miles per gallon over a week of driving. That's especially good because we never once drive the car in the pokey but fuel-efficient Eco or EV modes.

The CT 200h also costs thousands of dollars more than a Prius, which is to be expected for a premium car. In addition to the leather interior, our test model came with a dynamite stereo, sun roof, and full array of connectivity options.

As part of its strategy to expand the Prius line, Toyota will soon be offering a smaller version called the Prius C that bears a passing resemblance to the Lexus CT 200h. It will follow the introduction of the larger, minivan-like Prius V that debuted a few months ago. Toyota will also soon release a plug-in version of the Prius that can travel around 12 miles on electricity alone before switching over to conventional hybrid operation.

Perhaps surprisingly, Toyota also offers different hybrid systems in a number of other vehicles, including the redesigned 2012 Camry, the Lexus HS 250h sedan and the Lexus RX SUV, where an electric motor is mated to a 3.5-liter V6 for a combined 295 horsepower.

With all the buzz over EV and extended-range vehicles, it is easy to overlook Toyota's expansion of the Prius line in the race to meet increasing U.S. fuel economy standards. But with more than a decade of experience and increasing sales, Toyota knows that is has a proven product that still offers the best mileage of any car that still requires gas. New versions like the Lexus 200h F-Sport should expand its appeal even more.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model: 2012 CT 200h.

• Manufacturer: Lexus.

• Class: Premium compact car.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four-door hatchback.

• Engine: 1.8-liter inline 4 (98 hp) and electric motor (134 hp combined).

• Transmission: Continuously Variable Transmission.

• Drive modes: Eco, Normal, Sport and EV (electric up to 28 mph for one mile).

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 43/40

• Prices: Starting around $29,120 ($39,000 as tested).