Lexus HS250h

Written By nyit on Friday, April 8, 2011 | 7:01 AM

Downsized luxury isn't as awful a thing as it was when Cadillac and Lincoln first tried it in the early 1980s. With fuel-consumption concerns an ever-increasing part of the car buying process these days, many drivers are becoming more agreeable to getting all of the good things in life into a smaller and more efficient package. As a result, recent years have seen the good stuff from luxury flagships being mirrored in more compact vehicles.

That's where the Lexus HS250h comes in. The Japanese luxury brand has already made hybrid vehicles a staple of its lineup with gasoline/electric versions of its RX, GS and LS models. In addition to being the smallest Lexus, the all-new HS250h is its first dedicated hybrid, rather than being a modified version of an existing Lexus product. It's a good deal smaller than the average luxobarge, but makes up for it with seamless, simple-to-operate efficiency. The HS250h is a well-appointed driving appliance, and Lexus has taken many steps to make it so.

Lexus' hybrid models have traditionally been unassuming, and the HS250h is similarly unassuming. This compact sedan features Corolla-like lines, with short overhangs and a high trunk. The face is somewhat unusual thanks to the shield-like grille which emphasizes the car's aerodynamics. Air intakes are mounted lower in the body. The details are quite handsome; large crystal headlamps and a long, thin-pillared greenhouse are similar to the Lexus ES while the sporty Lexus IS offers influence in the chunky body and short overhangs . LED headlamps are available. Blue-ringed badges identify this car as one of Lexus' hybrid models. It doesn't look it, but extreme measures have been taken to make the HS250h more aerodynamic, from the small spoilers front and rear to the shape of the roof.

The interior is sports the upscale-on-a-budget look of many premium compacts, which isn't a bad thing unless you're used to the top-of-the-line LS600h L. Look closely and it becomes clear where the HS250h comes from, however; the shape of the windshield frames, high center console and instrument panel point to Prius DNA. The console is shaped like a boat's prow, giving a cockpit feel to the interior. About thirty percent of the HS250h's trim is ecologically friendly, using plant-based bioplastics in places like the comfortable five-passenger seating and generous trunk. Standard equipment includes Lexus' Premium Audio system with Bluetooth and iPod/USB capability, an infrared-repelling windshield and an ionic cabin air cleaner and pollen filter as well as a total of ten airbags.

Lexus' new Remote Touch controller, just introduced on the RX350, is a part of the available navigation system, and its mouse-like controller is surprisingly user-friendly. Tactile, "haptic" feedback makes shifting between menus a breeze, and the unit eliminates unnecessary buttons from the console. Voice command controls and a backup camera are included with this system. An optional front-view camera mounted in the grille projects a panoramic view of what's immediately in front of the car at low speeds and is useful in parking lots at night. Naturally, the sound system can be upgraded to Mark Levinson specifications. The HS250h is also available with heated and cooled seats, aniline leather trim and a head-up display for the driver, projecting speed and navigation data onto the windshield in front of the driver.

On the road, the HS250h's mechanical workings are almost invisible. The two-motor system provides modest performance. A "power" mode eliminates the slow-ish pace of the 2.4-liter, twin-cam Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine, though acceleration comes at the expense of fuel economy. The engine produces 147 horsepower, and the total combined power of the hybrid system is 187 horses. At low speeds, as with the Prius, the HS250h operates on full-electric power. An "EV" mode holds the HS250h in electric mode at low speeds. Lexus has taken significant steps to minimize noise and weight, including twin intake resonators and a single-piece radiator that serves the engine, hybrid system and air conditioning. A continuously variable transmission puts the power to the road smoothly; the shift-by-wire interface provides very little feedback, resulting in very sterile, video-game like operation. Fuel economy is good for a car this size, but you have to drive carefully if you're hoping for "stellar." Normal freeway driving resulted in an average of about 34mpg for me.

This car's Prius DNA is strong. In fact the HS250h feels more like a Prius than a Lexus, to be honest. It's about the nicest Prius you'll ever meet, at least. Wind and tire noise, however, are quite evident on the freeway, and the car falls somewhat short of Lexus' usual whisper-quiet ride. MacPherson struts and a thick stabilizer bar are used in the front, with a double wishbone rear. The HS250h offers a relatively taut ride. The regenerative brakes lack the abrupt pedal response that often characterizes such systems, making it easier to stop smoothly. Driver-assisting technologies like Lane Keep Assist and the Dynamic Radar Cruise Control with Pre-Collision Assist are available.

Think of it as a good way to get the benefits of driving a Prius without the unflattering stereotyping that comes with Prius ownership these days. That said, what else is there to compare it to? Right now, nothing, unless Lincoln decides to do a hybrid MKZ. The HS250h is the only hybrid-powered premium compact on the road at the moment. HS250h pricing starts at $34,200. The HS250h Premium I tested was well-equipped, with the Mark Levinson sound system, navigation, Lane Keep Assist, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, head-up display and other equipment and went for $46,555.

The ultimate question is this: Will buyers be interested in a compact, high-efficiency Lexus? Clearly someone from Aichi (Japan, where Lexus' headquarters is) thinks so. The HS250h is a nice product, but I can't help wondering who Lexus was planning to entice with it. Despite the growing focus on economy, the trend for buyers stepping up to more expensive vehicles is to go bigger--that is, the person who's got about $40,000 to spend and wants something with more zoot than a Camry is going to be looking at the ES350 or IS350, rather than the Corolla-sized HS250h. Lexus is wagering that the trend toward reduced consumption and the availability of this handsome luxury hybrid will make some folks change their minds about that.

Specifications: All specs are for the 2010 Lexus HS250h

Length: 184.8 in.

Width: 70.3 in.

Height: 59.3 in.

Wheelbase: 106.3 in.

Curb weight: 3770 lb.

Cargo space: 12.1 cu.ft.

Base price: $36,970

Price as tested: $46,555

Engine: 2.4 liter DOHC 16-valve four-cylinder engine with 650-vold permanent-magnet motor-generator

Drivetrain: continuously-variable automatic transmission, front-wheel drive

Horsepower: 147 @ 6000 (engine); 187 total

Torque: 138 @ 4400 (engine)

Fuel capacity: 14.5 gal.

Est. mileage: 35/34

By Chris Jackson

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