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Lexus hybridizes sporty hatchback

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — First of all, there’s the little matter of the color. Our gas-electric, hybrid-powered Lexus CT 200h was glazed in Daybreak Yellow Mica – Dijon mustard yellow to the less inspired.

It was bright. Really bright. People stared – and I imagine not at the car itself, the design of which is also out of the ordinary. On a positive note, it makes it really easy to spot in a crowded mall parking lot.

As for the generally handsome hatchback’s exterior styling, its overall shape is fairly standard fare, but behind the rear doors there’s an awkward kink that creates a bit of an odd appearance. It’s not unattractive, just somewhat unusual, like something you might expect to see on a French car.

2011 Lexus CT 200h Premium
VEHICLE TYPE: Four-door, five-passenger luxury compact hatchback
BASE PRICE: $30,900
PRICE AS TESTED: $35,819 (incl. delivery fees)
POWERTRAIN: Hybrid system with 1.8-liter, DOHC, four-cylinder; electric drive motor; 134 combined horsepower; continuously variable automatic transmission; front-wheel drive
WHEELBASE/LENGTH: 102.4″/170.1″
CURB WEIGHT: 3,130 pounds
EPA FUEL RATING: 43 mpg city/40 highway

Overall, though, quite an eye-catching vehicle.

The CT 200h is Lexus’ latest of six hybrid vehicles and its first compact hatchback. Apparently, it’s supposed to cater to more sporting types who are also attracted to the green aura of hybrids. To that end, the CT has a nicely tuned suspension system that provides taut handling while preserving a smooth highway ride.

But based on Toyota’s popular Prius, the CT’s drivetrain performance is severely limited. With only 134 net horsepower to motivate 3,130 pounds – more than the Prius weighs – the hatchback is an also-ran in stoplight grand prix. Thanks to the continuously variable transmission, the little gasoline engine spends a lot of time at high revs when more power is requested.

The interior falls a bit below typical Lexus quality as there are more hard plastics than you might expect from a “premium” marque. Still, front seating is very comfortable and supportive; rear passengers might feel a bit cramped.

Of course, the main reason to consider a hybrid is for its fuel economy, and here the CT 200h shines as brightly as its paint. Over a week, our tester averaged 41.2 miles per gallon. And that was predominantly in-town driving.

Can sporty and green coexist in a medium-priced car? A test drive will provide you with your answer.