Earlier this week, Lexus invited Gear Patrol to get behind the wheel of the new 2011 Lexus CT 200h a few months ahead of its North American release this March. The punishing streets of New York aren’t what we’d call a typical test track, but the CT 200h is not your typical car, let alone Lexus. The CT 200h is the result of designwork by Toyota’s Calty Design Research in Southern California and Michigan. The independent design team is responsible for concepts, competition vehicles, and rolling icons like the FJ Cruiser. The car they have created is a drastic departure from any Lexus you’ve come to expect (like your parents’) and that’s a very, very good thing.

Here in the states, where hot hatches are typically popular with enthusiasts who clamor for rides like the Mazdaspeed 3 and Audi A3, the Lexus CT (for Compact Touring) has a valid place with its “European” approach. You may initially be turned off by its seemingly diminuitive size and the fact that when you strip away its aggressive (for Lexus) styling, its underpinnings are essentially those of a Prius, but what you do get is an eminently lightweight (3,130 lbs) vehicle made of 80% recyclable components that achieves 43 mpg and has a surprisingly spacious, well-appointed interior. And sure, the 0-60mph time of 9.8 seconds, 134 combined horsepower, continuously variable transmission, and front-wheel drive may not make your heart race, but the CT is surprisingly nimble and responsive — tuned in just the right way to inspire us to spiritedly drive it up 6th avenue and fling it between taxis at rush hour (sorry if that was you we cut off).

Inside and out, the CT 200h is bold and handsome. Seats are well-bolstered, controls are properly placed, and the navigation’s 6″ screen is controlled by an intuitive joystick/mouse mounted on the center console. With the seats up, you’ll find over 14 cubic feet of cargo space, perfect for the urban weekend and spacious enough for 4 adults or 5 in a pinch. Drivers can select four driving modes that range from sport to pure-electric, an invevitable succumbing to modern car design trends. The instrument cluster changes its ambient color to match, but Lexus has executed it tastefully. Blue: electric, red: sport, etc. The power delivered from sport is deceivingly quick, enhanced by the low seat positioning, and though it may be a full second+ slower than the next Lexus hybrid (the forgotten-as-soon-as-it-arrived HS), the CT 200h feels infinitely quicker and quick-witted. The result is a Lexus that’s downright fun, two words we find ourselves unable to recall ever having mentioned in the same sentence.

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