Despite all outward appearances — it looks like a Toyota Corolla or even, as we first thought, the last-gen Prius jazzed up with the L-Finesse styling language — this Lexus is based on the same platform underpinning the Scion tC and foreign-market Toyota Avensis, with a fully independent suspension and a size somewhere between the IS and the ES models.
But one thing Lexus makes clear is this isn't a Prius. According to Lexus, the HS 250h courts a different kind of customer than the Prius; younger, more technologically-savvy and while not a green-freak, maybe more concerned about the environment than your average luxo-buyer. Which is good because with fuel economy figures of 35 MPG city, 34 MPG highway and 35 MPG combined the HS is not exactly a world-beater. But it's not like it doesn't have a lot of the same enviro-toys found in other hybrids. The HS has a 2.4-liter Atkinson-cycle inline-four with 147 HP under the hood, and combined with a 40 HP electric motor, there's a grand total of 187 HP. That power mates up to a CVT transmission backed up with heavy duty aerodynamic optimization and driver assistance tools. So how's it only managing to eke out a 35 MPG rating? Well, it's really pessimistic.
We're not the type to drive 5 MPH under the speed limit and use high-mileage techniques (ever), but our copilot today was and with "ECO" mode engaged, windows up and air conditioning off, he managed an astounding 57.9 MPG. It was, as you'd expect, a crushingly boring affair. When it was our turn in the driver's seat we dropped all the windows, opened the sunroof, blasted the air conditioning, put it in power mode and floored it, then hit the brakes, floored it, then hit the brakes, floored it…you get the idea. Driving the exact same course as our previous tester and being really bad the whole way 'round, we could only get down to an embarrassingly decent 30.3 MPG.
We'd consider ourselves failures if not for the very important fact that we actually had fun. If you ignore the proclivities of the CVT, the car is actually not a total dud, accelerating to 60 MPH in about 8.7 seconds, handling corners in a way we didn't think a hybrid could and, when you push it past the point of reason, it doesn't surprise, just gradually transitions to predictable understeer. Sure it's sprung for a soft ride over control and it certainly delivers the comfort Lexus is known for, but it's definitely not fall-asleep soft. One thing to note though, a smoky brake stand is impossible with the HS 250h. Engaging the electric parking brake takes the car out of drive and any simultaneous application of the brakes and throttle just causes the engine to sit there, the tach staring up at you like you're an idiot as it idles around 1500 RPM. That does, however, make standing starts pretty rapid.
With our doubts assuaged about the performance, it's time to look at what Lexus did inside. If you've looked at the 2010 Lexus RX 350 and RX 450h, you'll find a lot of similarities with the HS. The overall feel is the sort of spartan, high-tech luxury pioneered by the Swedes but interpreted by the Japanese. High quality materials reside throughout, with 30% of materials derived from plant-based sources, though the effects of weight reduction can been seen in a somewhat flimsy glovebox door and door map pocket. Otherwise, everything is top notch. The hand-stitched leather sprinkled around the cabin is a nice touch, as are the supportive seats and plush carpets.
As with the Prius, the dinky shift-by-wire knob is stupid and horrible and too much like a video game controller. The myriad buttons scattered across the dash make the learning curve a bit high, though many are rarely used in the day-to-day. The optional mouse-like Remote Touch Interface brings the full cadre of eco data-logging and navinfotainment options on a pop-up screen. It'll also provide camera views for option rear and front cameras. Yes, a front camera, which provides a 180 degree view so you can poke your nose out of obstructed view area into traffic and see what's coming. New this year and first in the HS is a sort of OnStar meets XM Travel, called "Lexus Enform." It'll roll out to all Nav-equipped Lexi this summer, and it does stuff like live weather updates, traffic, destination assistance an pretty much everything OnStar and Sirius Travelink does, but from Lexus. It also lets you create roadtrips on a computer and upload them via Enform to your car, up to 20 routes with 200 points of interest each.
If you didn't know better, you'd think the HS 250h was no different than any other Lexus, just equipped with an annoying CVT transmission. For any full hybrid that's strong praise, but from a green perspective, it's maybe not as efficient as it could be, trading decreased fuel economy for increased luxury. If we had to live with a hybrid, it would probably be a tough decision for us between the 39 MPG combined 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid and the HS 250h. We'd probably end up with the Fusion hybrid, because we expect the price-point's lower than an expected mid-30s starting price on the HS, although somehow we suspect buyers in the market will let their brand loyalties and preconceptions make that decision for them.