Driving Northwest: Lexus HS 250h

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by TOM VOELK / KING5 Car expert

NWCN.com

Posted on May 13, 2010 at 12:00 PM

Updated Thursday, May 13 at 2:42 PM

What defines a luxury car these days?  Supple ride?  High technology?  A premium badge or a quiet well crafted cabin perhaps.  Don’t forget the eco slant.  Imagine for a moment how happy we would all be for Branjelina if they could ditch the Prius and glide up to the Oscars in a premium branded hybrid.  All of the glamour and none of the guilt (but a whole lot of paparazzi).

Maybe Lexus has the answer with the HS 250h.   In concept this car is perfect for those who want to take over the world but still tread lightly upon it.   A luxury ride that gets great fuel economy and low emissions is a nobel idea, but a premium car is expected to be more than high technology wrapped up in nice leather and wood.  Core Lexus buyers may demand a certain gravitas that the HS ultimately doesn’t have. 

First, let’s get something straight, this is not just a re-skinned Prius with leather seats.  The HS has a larger gasoline engine and makes a total of 187 horsepower vs. 134 for Prius.  Physically this car is closer to a European Toyota called Avensis.  Good start, we all know Europe is much cooler than America because its... well, Europe.

But wait you say... 

Aren’t there 3 other hybrids in the Lexus line up?  Yes, GS 450h, LS 600h L, and the RX 450h.  But those models are also available in gas only models making the HS the only dedicated hybrid.  The shape, however generic, has the potential to rise above the subtle blue toned Lexus logo to give owners the eco recognition they crave.  With the other sedans optimized more for power, it could be argued the HS is the only Lexus hybrid designed to max out fuel economy.

The powertrain is a 147 horsepower 4-cylinder that runs on the Atkinson cycle.  There are two electric motors, a starter that doubles as generator and a second more powerful drive unit that produces 141 HP (total horsepower is not simply the gas and electric power added together). The Ni-MH battery is mounted up against the rear seat in the trunk.  Power is channeled through a continuously variable transmission with the expected slightly rubbery dynamics.  HS is moderately peppy, 0-60 happens in 8 and a half seconds, easily beating Prius by a full second if drag racing (and really, what hybrid driver can resist a street dual?). 

Luxury brings weight gain, never good news for fuel economy.  HS’s 35 mile per gallon EPA rated average is hardly shabby but plucky little brother Prius scores a lofty 50.  Driving HS like a regular car gets me 30 miles to the gallon in city driving, the place where hybrids shine.  In slow “annoying other drivers” mode, the HS 250h returns 34 MPG.  The writer who had the car before me managed a 38 MPG average according to the trip computer.  Seems my hypermiling skills need work.

All the usual hybrid tricks are here

Start off easy and HS 250h pulls away solely on electric power.  The gas engine kicks in when more power is needed.  Batteries are charged when coasting or breaking.  It’s all visible on a flow chart familiar to Prius owners via a crisp retractable LCD screen. 

There’s different power modes, one optimizes the system for performance another fuel economy. EV mode allows a guy to quietly skulk up to the house from about 2 miles away if speed is kept under 20 miles.  This requires a feather light throttle foot and a battery with a strong charge.  Not sure if anyone other than Tiger Woods would use this. 

HS 250h trades some of the classic Lexus smoothness and quietness for efficiency.  The distinctive whine of electric drive motor is easily heard from the cockpit and road noise is higher than expected from this brand.  It does not provide the classic “triple Teflon coated” Lexus experience.  Cornering is average with little road feel, ride quality seems similar to Prius without driving them back to back.  Brake modulation is not as firm or predictable as a standard car because of the regenerative feature that charges the battery.

Lots of tech inside

I’m driving a Premium model.  The cabin has upscale leather trim and wood pieces to go with standard grade plastics (30 percent of them “sustainable eco plastics”).  The steering wheel gets electric tilt/telescope adjustment with memory feature (base cars get manual operation).  Available technology includes radar assisted cruise control with collision mitigation, an HUD display that appears to float near the hood, comfy heated and cooled leather seats plus Lane Keep Assist that uses sensors to gently keep the HS centered between the road lines.

USB and Bluetooth can handle iPod and phone connection.  The Mark Levinson sound system is very good, as usual. Airbag count is high, there’s 10 of them including front knee and rear side torso units.  Back up cameras are common, 250h gets front units to help keep the bumpers scuff free in tight parking situations. Side windows have a coating the resists rain and snow.  There’s even an LED headlight option.

An average sized guy like me will be OK in the outboard back seat positions.  Cushioning and bolstering are quite comfortable, foot room is OK.  The middle seat is raised, I have just enough room though my hair rubs up against the headliner.  No seat mounted map pockets, power port or climate control zone back here.

Lexus can now Enform you

Toyota now has an OnStar-like system called Enform with Safety Connect.  I’d like to do a separate profile on it but in a nutshell the Safety Connect part of it will call emergency services and pin point the location of the car if you have an accident.  Need roadside assistance?  Push the SOS button.  If the car is stolen a GPS tracker can help find it. 

Subscribe to the Enform service and drivers can talk to a representative while either parked or driving.  This friendly person (I’m assuming) can find all sorts of useful destinations such as stores, gas stations and Waffle Houses then download the info into the nav system.  eDestination lets you send addresses to the navi from your home computer.  Create different folders for different trips, 20 in total with up to 10 separate destinations per folder.  More than ever needed I would think.

Even more gizmos

Order XM satellite radio and there’s now stock, sports, weather and traffic information.  All of this can be accessed by the Remote Touch controller which is like a computer mouse with haptic feedback for your fingertips.  I find it easy to learn but still a little distracting while driving. 

Voice recognition understands casual conversation.  Say things like “I’m cold” or “I’d like to fill my trunk with toilet paper” and the system will hike the heat up or use the nav system to direct you to the nearest Costco.  OK, the Costco bit is implausible but it makes a good segue.

A little trunk trivia for you, HS 250h’s cargo hold is actually a skosh bigger than the one found on their LS 600h L hybrid (their full-sized flagship sedan).  With the battery pack up against the seat there’s no folding option.  HS scores an easy 5 packs in the TP trunk test, about average.

Competition from little brother

Know that many of the tech features in this car such as Lane Keep Assist, Parking Assist and Dynamic Cruise with Collision Mitigation can be found on Prius.  Loaded up with every major option the Toyota comes in at around 34K, about $1,500 less than a base HS.  It’s iconic shape also screams that the buyer thinks they are saving the planet, important to some in this genre.  HS 250h does deliver some luxury upgrades but at nearly 47 grand as tested plus lower fuel efficiency, that’s quite a price to be paid. 

Formidable competition comes this fall from Lincoln, which plans to launch a hybrid version of the MKZ.  Based on the well regarded Fusion hybrid architecture, gas mileage should be 4-5 MPG higher than HS 250h with an interior that rivals Audi.  But until it arrives, the Lexus is the only premium badged hybrid in town.  The question is, will Branjelina and the like just continue to show up on awards night in a Prius?
 

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