DELRAY BEACH, FL – Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus division has a problem.

While it’s successful, having been the top-selling luxury marque in the U.S. for 10 years, its owner base is aging.

The solution?

Lexus thought last year’s HS 250h would win over the young’uns, but apparently it just diverted folks from the stodgy ES model, aka Lexus’ Camry.

Now, the brand is trying again, with the CT 200h compact hybrid-electric hatchback.

It’s sporty, but green. Will America’s 30-somethings like it? Maybe.

The car is one of the most intriguing Lexus offerings in years, deviating from the standard 4-door 3-box design in favor of a 5-door hatchback body style.

It features a highly rigid body with Lexus-first performance dampers.

And, oh yeah, the CT nets 42 mpg (5.6 L/100 km) on average.

But it also makes a piddly 134 hp between its 1.8L 4-cyl. gas engine and 60 kW electric motor. It’s the same HEV system that drives the Toyota Prius.

And, in a recent test drive here, the CT has an exceedingly heavy accelerator pedal, regardless of the driving mode: normal, eco or sport.

In that respect, the CT doesn’t compare favorably with the competition Lexus cites: the BMW 1-Series, Audi A3 and Volvo C30, which make from 140 hp (A3’s 2.0L turbodiesel) up to 300 hp in the 1-Series’ turbocharged 3.0L I-6. All three also have much better torque numbers.

The CT 200h is about 15 ins. (38 cm) shorter than its platform-mate, the HS 250h 4-door. The CT is just a bit longer than an A3 but the same width.

Lexus officials say the use of high-strength steel makes for the type of rigid body necessary for sporty driving. Steering mounts and suspension members have been reinforced as well.

The car rides on a MacPherson strut front suspension and a double-wishbone rear, the same setup as the HS. But the CT has Lexus-first lateral front and rear performance dampers to absorb some of the shocks that come from a stiff body. The front members connect the left and right strut towers.

While changing lanes on the freeway, the CT is tossable and tight, lacking body roll, likely helped by its light weight, wide stance and dampers. The CT is billed as “the lightest Lexus today,” with a 3,130-lb. (1,420-kg) curb weight.

Road irregularities are felt but without being annoying.

’11 Lexus CT 200h
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-door HEV
Engine 1.8L DOHC Atkinson-cycle 4-cyl. with aluminum block, head
Electric Motor 60 kW permanent magnet motor
Power (SAE net) 98 hp @ 5,200 rpm (134 hp system total)
Torque 105 lb.-ft (142 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm
Transmission Continuously variable
Wheelbase 102.4 ins. (260 cm)
Overall length 170.1 ins. (432 cm)
Overall width 69.5 ins. (177 cm)
Overall height 56.7 ins. (144 cm)
Curb weight 3,130 lbs./1,420 kg
Base price $29,995 with destination/handling
Fuel economy 43/40 mpg (5.5-5.9 L/100 km)
Competition BMW 1-Series, Audi A3, Volvo C30
Pros Cons
Not a sedan or SUV 1-Series coupe best seller
Great mpg Most lux buyers don’t care
Driving modes No difference in pedal feel

Fuel economy is the big story with the CT. Our low-speed driving through tony neighborhoods and downtown areas yielded big numbers.

Ward’s first jaunt over 30 mostly highway miles (48 km), generally in normal mode, averaged 44.6 mpg (5.3 L/100 km).

But in a second, surface-road-centric route, with eco mode switched on, we observed a Prius-like high of 57.6 mpg (4.1 L/100 km).

At the end of the route, after traveling at higher speeds in sport mode, we averaged 46.7 mpg (5.0 L/100 km).

The main frustration with the CT is its tightly calibrated accelerator pedal, which feels as if the parking brake is on. (Both throttle and shift mapping varies depending on each mode. A fourth mode, EV, proves elusive as our battery state-of-charge often was insufficient.)

With a 0-60-mph (100 km/h) time of 9.8 seconds, the CT won’t win many sprints, especially with the aforementioned competition.

Inside, Lexus specified high-end materials where it counts, with cheaper hard plastics reserved for doors and portions of the instrument panel.

But the CT has soft-touch material on its dash, plus attractive stitching on its center console and steering wheel. A handsome circular-knit fabric covers both the headliner and visors.

Firm, thigh-gripping front seats are a plus.

The CT’s rear-seat comfort is above average, with surprisingly good headroom in the middle-seat position.

The car has a deep cargo area but a high load floor. With seats up, cargo room is less than in the A3.

Fit and finish is above average in our pre-production tester, but a piece of trim came off a door panel, and a large gap where hard-plastic vents meet the soft-touch dash is noted.

Lexus deserves kudos for the CT’s eco-friendly materials, with plant-based plastics and NuLuxe metal-dye-free faux leather, emitting no volatile organic compounds. The car is 80% recyclable, Lexus claims.

The auto maker expects to sell 1,000 CT 200hs per month and is putting significant marketing dollars behind that goal.

It will be a struggle, as the high-performance 1-Series coupe is far and away the segment leader, but with just 11,903 sales through November, Ward’s data shows.

Yes, high fuel economy and hatchbacks don’t seem to appeal to many luxury buyers.

Still, the CT should get Lexus on the map with a subset of younger eco-minded shoppers.

But a non-hybrid performance variant would be the easiest way for the CT to turn heads.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com