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Quick Drive: 2013 Lexus CT 200h

The nicest Corolla money can buy.

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If I’m being honest here—and well, as a journalist, I probably should—if somebody asked me to pick out my favorite Lexus based solely on looks alone, and assuming the defunct LFA is off the table, the CT 200h would probably be my pick. That Japanese-hot-hatch look just grabs my eyes unlike anything else in Lexus’s rapidly-growing-anonymous lineup. It’s the sort of car that, based on the looks of the thing, you’d expect Toyota to keep strictly on the western shores of the Pacific Rim—which means as a car guy, I’m programmed to like it.

Problem is…underneath that JDM-spec skin, the CT 200h is a Corolla.

To be more precise, the CT 200h is based on Toyota’s MC platform, which underpins the Corolla, the Matrix, and the Prius among others. It’s this last one that’s most relevant, as the Prius and CT 200h are basically two variations on the same theme: hatchback hybrids with oddball styling. At least with the CT 200h, you avoid that whole crunchy-granola in-love-with-the-smell-of-your-own-farts stigma that sticks to Prius owners.

Here’s where this review takes a bit of an odd turn, folks. In living with the CT 200h for a weekend in New York City, I found this pathetically-powered hybrid hatch…surprisingly liveable. CVT, Atkinson cycle inline-four, electric motor and front-wheel-drive is the inverse of the equation that equals driving fun, but in New York traffic, there was just enough low-end torque to squirt the svelte Lexus between cars with ease. North of 45 mph, the little Lexus runs out of steam quickly, but in New York, you rarely get above that speed anyway. And the latter half of the throttle’s travel produces exactly zero additional acceleration, but that first half is enough to deal with anything traffic throws at you if you plan your passing moves ahead of time. And because of that fun-antithetical powertrain, you can beat the hell out of the CT 200h around town and still net 35 mpg or better.

No, in spite of what I’d have guessed, the Lexus CT 200h’s biggest flaw isn’t its hybrid powertrain. It’s the car’s ergonomics. The CT 200h is saddled with the Lexus curse: the worst infotainment system known to man.

Where other luxury automakers have sought ways to deal with the increasing number of tasks required by a car’s infotainment system by using touchscreens (Infiniti, Cadillac) or simple reconfigurable interfaces (BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi), Lexus went ahead and added a mouse to the car. Seriously. There’s a small joystick where your right hand falls, with an ergonomic wrist rest behind it, ready to control the navigation system and stereo with a cursor that floats freely across the screen. It ensures that any task requiring the mouse will take twice as long as it would in a car with iDrive or CUE. To put it in the words of my passenger during the weekend, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Other infuriating eccentricities abound. The screen defaults to navigation after ten seconds of inactivity—you can’t leave it set to the radio screen, for example. And the Bluetooth connection forces you to disconnect and reconnect your phone if you want to switch from listening to music on your phone and making a call—though oddly, not the other way around. On their own, they’re little things, but they add up quickly into a generally unsatisfactory driving experience.

So all things considered, my opinion of the CT 200h is pretty much the opposite of what it was before I took the wheel for a few days. Last week, I thought of it as a transportation appliance without a metaphorical fun-to-drive bone in its body; today, it’s an oddly fun little city runabout that falls short in the appliance department. Too bad, too. A better infotainment system and a few little tweaks are all that stand between this car and my recommendation for anyone who wants a zippy city car.

Model: 2013 Lexus CT 200h Premium F Sport

Price: $37,870 (as tested)

Power: 134hp, who bloody knows how many maximum lb-ft because Lexus doesn’t offer a combined figure.

0-60: 12 parsecs

Fuel Economy: 43 city, 40 hwy

Miles Driven: 80

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