By Mark Elias
Tuesday, May 26th, 2009 @ 2:26 pm
 
Despite hot sales since its luxury-laden arrival nearly 20 years ago, Toyota's premium division, Lexus, isn't content to rest on its laurels. Having really only dabbled in more performance-oriented hybrids, the brand has decided to capitalize on its parent company's successful Prius by offering an eco-minded hybrid of its own: The HS 250h.


The HS 250h is actually Lexus' fifth foray into the world of fusing gasoline and electricity; the LS 600h, GS 450h and two generations of hybrid RXs have been met with varying degrees of sales success.

To experience the HS 250h, we'll zoom back to Orange County, where we recently traveled for the introduction of the Lexus IS-C convertible. This we drive through the neighborhoods of bazillion-dollar homes where even the housekeepers drive luxury cars. Jay Leno's new crib is up on the hill, almost complete in time for his "promotion" to prime time.

A segment of one
The HS 250h is unique for the brand, as it stands alone in its field. To this point, it is the only compact luxury hybrid vehicle in the marketplace. Size-wise, it slots in against the Toyota Corolla - slightly larger than the Prius and Honda Insight. Although these others are hybrids, they hardly reek of anything approaching luxury despite their popularity among those with dough.

As Lexus rightly claims, the HS stands alone in a segment of one.

The HS 250h features an exterior design that seems to draw from several sources, including those outside the company. Starting with the strong look of the tri-bar grille that resembles that seen on the Ford Fusion, it is flanked by two sharp accented headlamps that do lend a bit of style to this all-new platform. The D-pillar features a shape in the rear-door windows that recalls the line seen in the HS's corporate sibling, the IS sedan.

Slipstreaming
Aero tricks built into the body, from the subtle lip spoiler in front, and the flared front fenders that cause airflow to run past the front wheel wells, to the aerodynamic tail lamps and rear decklid spoiler have enabled the HS to cheat wind to the tune of 0.27 Cd. The A-pillars have been smoothed as well to assist in this effort. Seeing that the name of the game here is fuel economy, these all contribute toward that end.

Power for the HS comes from Lexus's first four-cylinder gas/hybrid system. The gas side of the equation is an Atkinson-cycle 2.4 liter that contributes 147-horsepower and 138 lb-ft. of torque. The electric motor adds 140-horsepower, but don't go adding A+B to get the sum of C. Power computation with hybrids doesn't quite work that way, but according to the propellerheads at Lexus, the combined Lexus Hybrid Drive system manages to crank out 187-horsepower. That's not hot-rod territory by any stretch, but for a fuel-sipper weighing 3682 pounds with batteries, it's not totally out of the realm. Additionally, the system incorporates an exhaust heat recovery system to help reduce warm-up times and to allow the engine to shut off sooner. The net result is more efficiency overall, and improved operation in colder climates.

Or, by the numbers, 35 mpg in the city and 34 on the highway for a combined average of 33 miles per gallon. It pales against the Prius and Insight, but the city number blows away any other compact luxury sedan in the North American market, including the diesel BMW 335d, which is rated at 23 mpg around town and 33 mpg on the highway.

As is typical with other Toyota and Lexus-branded hybrids, the HS 250h uses two electric motors. Motor Generator 1 is the engine starter, generator, and transmission ratio control. Motor Generator 2 operates the front wheels, and helps for energy regeneration during braking. The batteries that MG2 regenerates to are located under the rear seat of the interior.

Several modes of operation exist on the HS. An information gauge in the binnacle displays efficiency guidance to drivers for the various driving modes they may select. Normal mode operates the car as you may expect a typical hybrid to, while ECO mode remaps throttle response and air conditioning for more fuel-efficient starts from stop. EV Mode is the "sneak home" mode that runs on electric only for a limited distance; typically a couple of miles, and Power Mode runs with a bias towards the gas engine.

Power to the wheels is by way of an electronic continuously variable transmission. We found it a capable cruiser on highways, and were surprised to find the characteristic escalating whine that normally comes from such gearboxes was absent, or heavily silenced by the quietness of the HS's cabin. The ride was well modulated, and managed to send a moderate bit of road feel to driver in exchange for his input. The MacPherson struts with coil springs in front and double wishbones with trailing arms in back helped to give a typical Lexus ride quality to the HS 250h. Luxurious, yes, but not pillow soft. Mind you, this is no BMW 3-series or Mercedes C-Class.

On local California toll roads, the car did not get squirrelly when encountering repaired expansion joints and road imperfections. An available sport-tuned suspension can be had with the Touring package.

Although Lexus claims 0-60 is achieved in 8.4 seconds, expect to stand on the accelerator to merge onto fast-moving highways. In addition to its quiet interior, it is silent outside too, so much so that some sort of motor "noise" should be added for safety sake to remind you that the vehicle is running or to let a pedestrian know the car is about to move.

The extras
All the technology, in half the space. That's what we found while going over the list of options available in the HS. They include Lane Departure Warning, which helps to steer the car back into the lane, while Lane Keep Assist alerts the driver to any deviations in direction. An available wide-view monitor displays a front side blind spot via the in-dash monitor, while the backup camera shows its view in the same place.

Ecological insides
Lexus boasts that the HS 250h's interior is the first vehicle to use Ecological Plastic for its upholstery. Made from plants, using a photosynthesis process, it can be reclaimed through thermal recycling, which is near-carbon-neutral. It's just a start, but it amounts to around 30 percent of the interior and luggage trim area.

A new widescreen pop-up monitor occupies the top of the center stack, offering map views for the navigation system as well as audio and climate info. Twin system gauges occupy the driver's gauge binnacle, and give an idea of power regeneration, consumption and modes as well as vehicle speeds and other information. Although we did not have a chance to experience it, a heads-up-display unit is available as an option.

Seats are comfortable, though not really well bolstered for enthusiastic stints behind the wheel. But then, that's not what the HS 250h is about. The rear seat was surprisingly roomy and can accommodate three passengers for a least a few around-town jaunts. A driver and passenger heating and ventilation package is available.

First seen in the RX crossover, the "haptic" remote controller again makes its way into the line. Operated like a computer mouse, the controller works by touch with the goal of keeping both eyes on the road. Ditto for keeping fingerprints off the monitor. The shift-by-wire lever is a modern aged gear selector that has drive, reverse, and neutral on it; Place the car in park by pushing the park button.

Finally, the HS 250h boasts of the largest trunk in the Lexus hybrid lineup. With repackaged battery systems and innovative suspension design, the cargo capacity can now accommodate up to four golf bags.

Leftlane's bottom line
The new HS 250h is a first for Lexus as the smallest hybrid in their lineup. A capable performer that easily achieves their claimed mileage goals, it could probably go much further at the hands of a hypermiler. It shows off what is becoming the new face of the brand, and will be an important step for those craving "responsible luxury" without sacrificing ride quality and amenities.

About as efficient as the diesel-fueled Audi A4 2.0 TDI or BMW 325d that don't make the trip across the pond, the HS will no doubt appeal greatly to those who value the hybrid badge and the Lexus label above all else.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.