First Drive: 2010 Lexus HS 250h is pretty on the inside

2010 Lexus HS 250h – Click above for high-res image gallery

Just because The Cold War is over doesn't mean that all cold wars have come to an end. Two protagonists in the auto industry – once again, East vs. West – are currently embroiled in an in-car safety and technology arms race that is beginning to look more like NASA vs. Roskosmos than a battle between luxury sedans. The latest master weapon comes from Lexus in the form of its HS 250h hybrid, claimed to be not only the world's first hybrid-only luxury sedan, but also the most fuel-friendly luxury vehicle extant. If Lexus has it, they put it on this car. Our question was: Would we want to put one in our driveway? Follow the jump to find out.

Photos copyright ©2009 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc.

Frugal hybrids are here, sports car hybrids are here, and luxury hybrids are dipping wheels in the waters. This car marks the first luxury-only hybrid to make its acquaintance with the public. During the launch, Lexus was at pains to make sure we did not confuse this car with the Prius, informing us that the HS' closest sibling is the Euro-market Toyota Avensis. Fitting in between the IS and ES and GS in brand placement, the HS 250h "was developed as an answer to customers looking for an environmentally conscious premium vehicle."

What about the GS 450h and LS 600h? In addition to the HS 250h being hybrid-only, it's the first Lexus hybrid tuned with the primary goal of delivering superior economy. While Lexus' GS and LS hybrids are meant to provide power above their weight class with the same fuel efficiency, the HS is meant to provide economy with a decent dollop of power.

It does so via a DOHC 2.4-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing. The engine alone puts out 147 horsepower, but add some juice from the 245-volt battery behind the rear seats and the system is good for 187 hp. Torque comes to 138 lb-ft, and you can have it all on regular 87-octane gas. The car isn't just frugal on gas, it's equally parsimonious with emissions: 70% fewer smog-forming emissions find their way out of the tailpipe compared to conventional vehicles, and evaporative emissions are close to zero.

The mpg tally? According to Lexus, you'll be the proud owner of 35 city, 33 highway, 34 combined. That easily beats other car in the entry luxury segment, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, BMW 3 Series and Audi A4. It even beats the 1 Series. Heck, it even beats a Mini Cooper (except for the diesel, which you can't get here yet). Mind you, the HS isn't really competition for those cars, which all emphasize sporting splendor as opposed to frugal hybrid luxury.

A shift-by-wire system operating through a continuously variable transmission (CVT) gets the grunt seamlessly to the ground. The console-mounted shifter engages Reverse, Neutral, Drive, and a "B" setting that actuates an engine braking feature when going downhill, which helps use gravity to refill the battery and keep your feet off the brakes. Oddly, Park is a button next to the shifter – if you don't use the button, the car will remain in neutral when you get out. As the gentleman from Lexus University explained, "If you don't press the button, the car's going to leave."

Let's talk technology for a moment, shall we? Here are some of the systems on the HS 250h:

  • A Pre-Collision System that you get when you check the Dynamic Radar Cruise Control option. If your HS thinks you're going to hit someone, it will ring the warning bells and add brake pressure if it doesn't detect you're pressing the brake hard enough. The driver monitor will also be working to make sure you're still at work behind the wheel. If you do happen to have a boo-boo, you'll be protected by ten airbags.
  • A heads-up-display that projects not only speed, but nearly any input you give the car, including audio system commands and navigation instructions. The steering wheel buttons are touch sensitive, so that when you rest your finger on one, it appears dimly in the HUD display, and is illuminated if you actually press it. You also get Pre-Collision and Dynamic Radar Cruise Control warnings shown to you in the HUD.
  • The wide-view front monitor is the same feature you get on a Rolls-Royce Phantom. If, for some reason, you can't see what you're about to nudge the HS's four-foot nose into, turn on the front monitor and you'll get a 190-degree view from the grille-mounted camera.
  • An infrared-cut, acoustic glass windshield that reduces IR waves by 30%, and side glass with a water-repellent coating for better wet weather visibility and defrosting.
  • Intelligent high-beams use a camera in front of the rear view mirror and automatically switch between high and low headlight levels. They can also shorten the distance of the beam depending on whether traffic is approaching you or you are pulling up behind someone.
  • Lane Keep Assist helps you stay in your lane in two ways. When the lane departure warning system can clearly make out lane markings, the steering wheel will vibrate and if you stray, the car will apply an ever-so-subtle amount of steering input to get you back in the lane. The second feature is essentially the car keeping itself in the center of the lane. Once the HS 250 knows where the lane markers are, it will gently provide steering inputs on its own to keep the car going right down the middle. Not that you would – but you can take your hands off the wheel and watch the car keep itself between the lines. Of course, this feature doesn't work on switchbacks, and it's not an auto pilot, but it does appear to be the way things are going these days.
  • Casual voice command capability (as on the IS convertible) that let you blurt out "Make it cooler" and "I need a gas station" instead of dictating your way in clipped tones through menus.
When you're not inputting commands through the steering wheel and watching buttons light up in the HUD, you'll be doing it on the Romulan center console via the Remote Touch Controller – which is, simply, a mouse – introduced earlier this year on the RX crossover. If you can navigate a PC or MacBook, you can navigate the Lexus' menus. The controller provides user-adjustable feedback when it rolls over a clickable option, so once you've memorized the options on a screen you can click your choice without looking. Although it could appear gimmicky – and a tad large – a couple of points-and-clicks soon had us saying "Hey, that's all right!" If it had a 'Back' button it would be absolutely perfect, but that's an opportunity for Lexus to have something new to introduce on next year's model.

Now to the technological main event: whereas GM has Onstar and Mercedes has Tele-Aid, the HS 250h introduces Lexus Enform with Safety Connect. This is actually two different subscription services: Safety Connect will be available on all cars; Lexus Enform will be available on those with navigation.

Safety Connect notifies a command center if you've been in an accident, alerts tracking authorities to the vehicle's location, can make calls for emergency assistance, and adds GPS location data when you make calls to Lexus' roadside assistance program.

Lexus Enform can be thrown on top of that services and has two offerings. Destination Assist is like calling 411 for navigation – command center agents will help you find what you're looking for by name or type of business, at which point it will send the directions to the navigation system.

eDestination lets you go on the Lexus site at your home computer (or any other computer or iPhone – no Blackberry capability yet) and save up to 200 destinations in 20 different personalized folders. You can even annotate each destination with your own comments. Then you can send that entire packet to the car and download them all into the navigation system. Purchase an HS and you'll get the first year of Lexus Enform and Safety Connect for free.

If you just can't get enough of Lexus, there's Lexus Insider, a free opt-in service. Go to the Lexus Insider screen and you'll find audio messages from the company that can provide anything from useful vehicle tips to event information and owners' benefits.

The last sprinkle on the gizmo cake is XM Sports and Stocks for cars with navigation and an XM subscription. With XM Sports you can program schedules and results for five teams from the NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL. XM Stocks keeps track of ten companies in your portfolio and can read the day's activity to you.

The car's trimmings haven't been left out of the technofest, either. Bioplastics derived from kenaf make up 30% of the hybrid's interior and luggage area – in upholstery, foam, and injection-molded and board parts – with the result that the car is 85% recyclable. Elsewhere, leather abounds in the seating areas and there's a sheaf of rawhide over the dash cluster and lining the center console.

And that brings us, at long last, to the most quotidian aspect of the car: sitting in it. The HS is comfy and roomy, and the truncated center console keeps everything wide open inside. The thin, shaped front seatbacks leave plenty of room in back for real, human-sized men, so it's a good thing that the trunk is roomy, too. At 12.1 cubic feet, it can swallow more than any other Lexus hybrid (beating the LS 600h by 0.5 cubic feet), which means four and their golf clubs should go nicely. Any seat in the house is a nice one to have.

We have spent so long discussing the bounty of what's inside the car because we're still not taken with what's outside the car. The HS 250h is a lot of things and has a lot of things, but we would not put exceptional looks on that list. It has a Cd of 0.27, making it as slippery as it is bland. Of course, we understand why it looks like it does... but that doesn't change the fact that, well, it looks like it does. At one point, we pulled up next to a Toyota Corolla S, the one with the aero bits, and the resemblance was uncomfortable. We wouldn't have minded a little drop in gas mileage for a bit more bite in the HS' design.

19th-century French author Guy de Maupassant said he ate in the restaurant at the base of the Eiffel Tower because that was the one place where he didn't have to see the tower. Once inside and moving in the HS, you won't think about the way it looks. The driving experience is pretty close to awesome, this being a hybrid that'll seat four grown men with luggage and get you at least 34 mpg combined, probably more with a conservative right foot.

Turn the car on and you probably won't hear a thing, which isn't unusual for a Lexus. But in this case, there might actually be nothing happening – if the car doesn't need anything other than electrical power, even though you're about to pull away, it will remain silent. The only indication that all systems are go is a green "Ready" light in the gauge cluster. The car can operate at up to 20 mph on electric power alone for about five minutes, so if you're putting through a severely speed restricted area, you can do it within a cloak of aural invisibility (pedestrians, beware!).

When the engine finally does come on, it's the standard Lexus protocol of quiet. When urging the HS on, you can hear its exertions, but it's nothing out of place. Lexus spent a lot of time balancing the car's weight and shape against the sound profile that passengers would experience inside, and the results speak for themselves – or rather, they don't.

There are four drive modes when you get up to speed: EV, Eco, Normal, and Power. If you've bought a hybrid and you want a Power mode, perhaps you should buy the GS hybrid, but the setting does give you slightly increased throttle response. Normal mode was actually just fine for us as far as power was concerned. The car gets up to 60 in 8.4 seconds, which strikes us as plenty of pace for a model like this.

The HS never feels slow, not even in Eco mode, which was our favorite and coincidentally the slowest driving mode possible. Eco mode slightly retards the throttle response so that not only do you get the best possible gas mileage, but you begin to learn how much throttle you should give the car in order to achieve it. It doesn't rob you of your ability to give the car a whipping – if you mash the throttle, the car will understand that you want everything it's got. In Eco mode, the thriftiest Lex will build its way up to 35 mph much more fuel efficiently. This will usually result in some tarmac space growing between you and the folks stabbing at their accelerators, but it's not nearly as intrusive as it might sound. And we saved the life of a baby whale every time we used it.

You can also select EV-only mode, provided you know you're going to be going under 20 mph and the battery is more than 50% charged.

But what about pushing in and out of corners? After driving it in the hills surrounding Los Angeles, the handling gets a thumbs-up from us. The HS uses MacPherson struts up front (with all of its parts completely different to the Prius) and a double wishbone rear suspension. The steering rack is not mounted on rubber bushings to keep the line of feedback undulled, and the electric power steering is speed sensitive. If you get the Touring Package, the suspension is tuned for even sportier handling. And if the truth be known, the package added up to a car that we thought handled better than the rear-drive IS Convertible. In fact, we drove them back-to-back just to make sure. We're not saying it could outperform the IS 350C, but in terms of meeting our expectations for cornering, steering, and feedback – sheer handling enjoyment– the HS wins.

We have no problem recommending the Lexus HS 250h because it certainly gets two out of three things exactly right: the cabin experience sets a fine mark for what a luxury pure hybrid can be and the driving is enjoyable. Our V8-loving enthusiast hearts never really felt cheated when tooling around in the car – in fact, we liked it. It's only the styling that gives us pause long enough to say that we will let other beholders judge that beauty for themselves.

If you're looking for a hybrid-only luxury car, this is the only place you can go for now. If you're looking at any entry-level luxury car, then the Lexus HS 250h is a fine place to start comparing the present choices with one possible future.

Photos copyright ©2009 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc

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