Taking the ‘car as transportation, not amusement park ride’ ethos of the Toyota Prius to the next level, Lexus has created its first hybrid-only model, the HS 250h. While the two vehicles share very little mechanically, in spirit they are peas in a bright green environmentally friendly pod.
The calling card of the HS is a well-dressed, but somewhat stumpy 4-door form that is based on a Toyota sold in Europe called the Avensis. Far from a visual oddity like the similarly-sized Prius, its unassuming looks, peppered with Lexus styling cues, give it an air of austerity that stands out from the sleek sedans the brand has come to be known for.
The underlying idea behind the HS is to offer would-be premium hybrid drivers an identifiable car to embrace as their own, not merely a more fuel efficient version of one of the other models in the Lexus showroom. But rather than coming across as a next-gen automotive marvel, the HS looks more like a gussied-up economy car. Pity, because beneath the staid skin lies one of the most technologically advanced automobiles on the market today.
Under the hood is essentially the same powertrain found in the Toyota Camry Hybrid, which mates a 2.4 liter 4-cylinder gasoline engine to a continuously variable transmission and an electric motor driving the front wheels. The combined output is 187 horsepower, which is enough to get the little Lexus into the same ballpark as competitors like the Acura TSX and Mercedes-Benz C-Class, but only as a bench warmer, if not so much a global warmer.
The HS has an EPA combined rating of 35 miles per gallon, the best fuel economy of any automobile currently offered by a luxury brand. Even the diesel-powered BMW 335d comes up way short of that mark at 27 mpg. While that figure may not sound impressive compared to the 50 mpg Prius, the HS is more powerful and weighs nearly 700 pounds more than that icon of efficiency, thanks in part to all of the garnish and gadgets found inside.
Since you are reading this article on FOXNews.com, there is a good chance that you are doing so while sitting at your computer. That means you have your right hand on the mouse, monitor positioned at eye-level, and your left hand busy with some other important task that we won't explore here. In other words, you are in the exact same position you would be if you were behind the wheel of the HS.
Lexus has created an environment for the driver that is more like a cubicle than a cockpit. Yes, there is a steering wheel, and pedals to make the car stop and go, but the rest of the layout would fit right in at the office, with information screens up high and controls at easy reach. It even has an optional mouse.
It lives at the end of a jutting center stack, right about where a gear selector is usualy located. Really more of a joystick, it combines the best attributes of a knob and a touch screen. In fact, it gives ‘touch screen’ a whole new meaning.
Use it to move the pointer on the infotainment display over an on-screen icon and you feel a bump in the controller as if you ran your hand over a button. If you let go of it, the joystick will even hold itself in position in the virtual indentation, rather than spring back to center. The technology is called haptic feedback, and, surprisingly for a first-time application, is very effective.
The HS gets the latest navigation software from Lexus, which lets you research and upload destination information from your home computer prior to setting off, or call an operator from the car and have them look something up for you while on the move. Weather, stock reports, and sports scores are all available, as is something called Lexus Insider, which is an audio broadcast with information and entertainment content specifically targeted at HS owners.
The monitor also displays the feeds from a backup camera, and a clever 120-degree front-mounted camera that comes on at low speeds and helps out when pulling out of a parking space or away from a stop sign. Both work in concert with parking assist radars located around the car.
A heads-up display is available that projects the vehicle’s speed, directions from the navigation system, and radio stations directly in your line of sight on the windshield. If you avert your eyes, anyway, the HS offers a system that uses a sensor on top of the steering wheel to keep its own eye on your face. If it determines that you are looking where you are not supposed to be looking, and you are about to run into a tree that needs a hug, the HS makes noises and taps on the brakes to get your attention. My test car didn’t have this installed and, even if it did, I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way to try it out. If you continue to ignore the car’s entreaties, and start drifting from your lane, a Lane Keep Assist feature will lightly steer the car back into it if you fail to make any corrections.
Taken as a whole, there is a lot of yin and yang going on in HS, or as the Japanese call it “inyodo”. Distractions are provided, then met by electronic countermeasures, all of it diverting attention from the driving experience itself. That last bit is perhaps intentional.
Lexus would truly like the HS to be spoken of in the same breath as cars like the BMW 3-Series, but dynamically it is way short of the mark. When it comes to driving excitement, the sedan barely even compares to the larger, identically-priced Lexus ES parked next to it on the showroom floor.
The ride quality is reasonably comfortable, but floaty, with too much roll through the turns and nose dive under braking. Driven efficiently, the handling is fine, but you really have to saw at the wheel in turns, and understeer can be severe if you try to push the car anywhere near its limits. Sixty-one percent of the vehicle’s weight is on the front tires and at times it feels like much more than that.
But if the HS has little grace in its moves, it does have ease, especially at low speeds where light steering and a tight turning circle make it a killer urban runabout. The interior is trimmed in the same kind of buttery leather, plush carpeting, and soft synthetic materials found in any Lexus, along with some cheap-looking bio-plastic on the doors, and castor seed derived-foam in the seats aimed at lowering the overall carbon footprint of the HS. Despite the diminutive dimensions of the car, rear passengers get a healthy amount of space, aided by deep cutaways in the backs of the front seats for added legroom.
Ultimately, the HS comes across more like a normal car than a fuel-saving eye dropper, and that is high praise for such an eco chic ride. Nevertheless, while Lexus doesn’t like to paint the HS primarily as a step-up vehicle for Prius owners, they are clearly the ones who will appreciate its unique flavor the most. Whether or not they are ready to trade economy for some extra speed and style is yet to be seen.
2010 Lexus HS 250h
Base Price: $34,200
Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 4-door sedan
Powerplant: 2.4L inline-4 cylinder w/permanent magnet AC synchronous electric motor
Power: 187 hp
Transmission: Electronically controlled continuously variable automatic
MPG: 35 city/34 hwy
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Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.