Lexus HS250h — A challenging enigma

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

When we were first introduced to the all-new Lexus HS250h in the spring of 2009 we looked at the purpose built hybrid with jaundiced eye asking why Lexus didn’t simply build a hybrid version of its popular ES 350 mid-sized sedan.

It would have, we feel, delivered nearly the same mileage and would have been significantly less expensive to produce than building an entirely new car.

In light of the automotive economy and the steady losses suffered by most automotive companies in 2009 including Toyota/Lexus, it seemed like that would have been the smart thing to do.

But Toyota officials see the HS250h in a different light based on their experience with the extremely popular Toyota Prius that annually outsells by wide margins all other hybrids on the market.

It seems Toyota believes that for many people making a clear, visual statement — “I am green and politically correct” — is just as important as saving money on gas and saving the planet from whatever bad things the burning of petroleum products is supposed to do to us.

So now the customer who seeks Lexus luxury has somewhere to go that will attract positive attention while yielding 35 mpg in the city and 34 mpg on the highway.

That customer, however, will pay about a 10 grand premium over a not-so-luxurious Prius and get on average about 15 fewer miles to the gallon. On the other hand, that customer will pay about the same price as he would by opting for the entry-level ES 350 that seats the same number of people and gets about 10 fewer miles to the gallon.

Consider this, too; the roomier well-built Ford Fusion hybrid yields 41 mpg in city driving and costs much less.

So compare apples to oranges or apples to apples, whichever way justifies a purchase — or justifies skipping this new dedicated hybrid.

The base HS250h starts at $35,075 including destination charge and the top-line Premium goes out the door for $37,945. Both models can be ramped up many thousands of dollars depending on how many gee-whiz options you care to add on.

What the Lexus brings to market is a richly appointed interior and generally quiet cockpit demeanor, a staple of the Lexus brand.

But the passenger compartment is on the small side and performance is average — some might even say mediocre — at best.

And we could have hoped that with an all-new vehicle, hybrid styling would have been taken to a new level, that it would have set a new standard. But, alas, while the HS250h is non-offensive, it is conventional and certainly no step up — styling-wise — from the new Toyota Prius.

And what’s with the three-bar Ford-like grille slapped on the front? Has anybody noticed this faux pas?

While the HS250h borrows its hybrid powertrain from the Toyota Camry hybrid, the platform is unique to the Lexus lineup and is not, Lexus officials are quick to point out, a dressed up Prius.

Its compact size is bigger than a Toyota Corolla, but smaller in interior volume than a Camry, Fusion and even a Honda Civic hybrid, but it will haul four adults and a fair amount of luggage. The trunk measures a useable 12 cubic feet.

On the road, the Lexus offers a supple ride, relaxing environment and competent handling. A double wishbone rear suspension, in place of the torsion bar setup in the Prius, results in the more upscale ride.

Maybe Lexus is on to something? One of our usual riders, indeed, fell in love with the HS250h so much that she nearly shed tears when the man showed up and demanded the keys the next week. We looked at her with that same jaundice eye we had for the vehicle.

Performance is what you would expect of a hybrid. The HS250h is okay, but just okay. Before our first spin around the block, based on reading the horsepower numbers, we thought the Lexus would be sprightlier than it actually turned out to be.

The HS250h has 187 horsepower at its disposal from a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine and a pair of electric motor/generators. Zero to 60 has been measured in around 9 seconds, not quite up to modern 4-cylinder economy car standards, but decent all the same when you figure the powerplant is being asked to pull a rather portly 3,700 pounds of sheetmetal.

Although the Lexus can reach 60 about a second quicker than the Prius, in real world driving both vehicles feel about the same. Put in the context of everyday driving, the Lexus offers good enough performance to adequately accomplish all the chores of driving life including merging and passing.

What bothered us is Toyota’s “big brother is watching you” syndrome. Drivers can choose between econ or power modes by pushing a dashboard button. The power mode allows for sharper performance, but higher fuel consumption. And that would be our default setting if we owned the car. Unfortunately, each time the car was restarted it returned to the econ setting. Annoying to us but probably the right thing to do; after-all the purpose of the hybrid is more responsible fuel consumption.
As you might expect, the Lexus even in base 35 grand trim is loaded with standard equipment including all the cutting-edge safety stuff on the market.

Perhaps it’s asking too much, but we think — especially in a premium hybrid vehicle — that navigation should be standard equipment and be designed to display all the hybrid comings and goings.

In the HS250h it's a $2,125 option that includes a backup camera.

On the other hand, we would opt out of the navigation option and purchase a good portable navigation device. That’s because the Lexus navigation system has become too complicated to use while driving. For instance, even accessing radio station pre-sets requires about three steps of a controller mouse and a menu button. That in our opinion is going backwards. Lexus used to have one of the most user friendly systems in the luxury world; now it smacks of BMW’s iDrive, a system that nearly drove us crazy in its earlier iterations.

The HS250h can be loaded up with modern luxury equipment if your pocketbook can stand the strain. Our test car, in addition to navigation, came with a $1,600 touring package that included leather and heated seats, sport suspension and 18-inch wheels. Bottom line was $39,355.

Other kinds of the stuff available at extra cost on the HS include:
• Park assist, first offered in the flagship LS 460;
• Separate front and rear parking system;
• Adaptive xenon headlights;
• Mark Levinson audio system (worth the cash if you value great sound);
• Head-up display and lane-departure warning;
• Adaptive cruise control with a pre-collision system.

Truthfully we liked the car much better at the end of the week’s test than we did at the beginning of the week. The HS is a real enigma that leaves us with more questions unanswered. Perhaps Lexus is right in thinking the marketplace is open for a entry luxury purpose built hybrid that will allow people who can afford it to do the right thing. But if going hybrid was our chief concern, we would have be hard pressed to pay the Lexus price when there are some very viable alternatives available at considerably less money.

Base price: $35,075; as driven, $3,355
Engine: 2.4-liter 4-cylinder, 2 electric motors
Horsepower: 187 @ 6,000 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: continuously variable
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Length: 184.8 inches
Curb weight: 3,682 pounds
Turning circle: 37.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 12.1 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 14.5 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 34 mpg highway, 35 mpg city
0-60: 8.7 seconds (Edmunds)
Also consider: Toyota Prius, Ford Fusion Hybrid, Toyota Camry Hybrid

The Good:
• Comfortable, quiet cabin
• Long list of safety features
• Decent performance for a hybrid vehicle

The Bad:
• Ho-hum styling includes yet another three-bar grille

The Ugly:
• Find more mileage and more passenger space in less expensive Ford Fusion