Driven Again: 2010 Lexus HS 250h

February 3, 2010

After a follow-up drive with Lexus' compact hybrid luxury sedan, we're still a little underwhelmed.

The 2010 Lexus HS 250h doesn't completely miss the mark in any single way; but it does fail to wow in any conventional sense like performance, comfort, or spaciousness. And that makes it a bit of an odd duck.

Of course, fuel economy is a strength. Lexus boasts that the HS 250h has the highest of any luxury vehicle, at 35 mpg city, 34 highway, but as in our first drive of the 2010 HS 250h, we're left with the feeling that it isn't that much more inspiring to drive than the Prius while returning significantly lower mileage. We saw a decent but not delightful 32 mpg in about 100 miles of driving, split between low-speed urban—most of that time in the Eco or normal driving modes. That's a little bit better than what we saw last spring in Orange County traffic, but 12-14 mpg less than what we've seen in the 2010 Toyota Prius in similar driving conditions.

Provided you drive the HS 250h gently, the powertrain feels adequately Lexus-like, with the 147-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine pretty well isolated and the transitions between power sources often imperceptible. With Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive, an electric motor system brings a total output of 187 hp. And cruising at 70 mph is settled and quiet. It's when you need any quick burst of power, or if you're just more of a leadfoot, that you'll find way too much engine noise. Although there's never any discernible vibration in the cabin, it's loud, and out of place from any luxury marque that has had the word 'perfection' in its slogan.

It's also tough to know what to make of the HS 250h in ordinary driving; it has neither the firm, measured handling response of the IS 350 and IS 250 sport sedans nor the pillowy ride comfort of the Lexus ES 350. The ride feels somewhat firm and busy, but pitch it into a tight corner and you get lots of lean; additionally there's an element of bounciness over railroad tracks and particularly rough surfaces, and there's more road noise over rough pavement in the HS than we've experiences in any other Lexus product.

Interior packaging remains a disappointment. The HS felt smaller inside than we'd expect from eyeing its exterior, and a perusal of specs indicates that it has less EPA interior space than a 2010 Toyota Corolla (slightly less cargo space, too). Headroom is very limited all around, the seats have short lower cushions, and this 6'-6" driver's right knee was always jammed up against the corner of the center stack. As for the protruding center stack, which houses audio and climate controls, along with the Remote Touch controller, it doesn't include any storage below or beside (where some extra cargo nets would have been useful as the door bins are small). In back, there's just enough space for two average-sized adults, but three will be jockeying shoulders.

We've had good words for the Remote Touch controller, which pairs some of the attributes of a mouse and a trackball, in the past, though we're having some second thoughts. In general, it's quick and easy to use, but while the vehicle is in motion it's a little more challenging, diverting hand-and-eye coordination that requires you see the pointer on the screen.

Technology features is the one area where the HS really redeems itself; nearly all of the newest and coolest high-tech safety and convenience features in the Toyota/Lexus cache are on offer here. Our test vehicle had the Wide-view Front Monitor system, which at parking-lot speeds goes to a wide, wrap-around view, allowing you to spot cyclists or motorists in your blind spots or see outward in situations where you're nosing out into traffic. However in the particularly rainy weather that lasted most of the time we had the HS 250h, the view was almost illegibly rain-streaked. Also on our HS 250h was the $3,900 Tech Package, which includes Lane Keep Assist, Dynamic Laser Radar Cruise Control, a heads-up display, front and rear park assist, and a Pre-Collision System with Driver Attention Monitor. The Navigation Package, which includes XM NavTraffic, NavWeather, and Sports & Stocks features plus the Lexus Enform suite of services and Destination Assist, was another $2,125. And included with the HS 250h Premium are heated and ventilated leather seats, real wood trim, and dual-zone climate control.

Altogether, our test HS 250h Premium stickered at nearly $47k. That's a lot of money if you think of it as a car that doesn't feel especially refined or comfortable, and isn't even as roomy as a Corolla (while weighing a thousand pounds more and delivering 2-5 mpg more in city driving, but about the same on the highway). On the other hand, it's not bad for a luxury sedan that's a rolling technology showcase that has some of the features of the Lexus LS 600h flagship, in a vehicle that gets better mileage than any other luxury vehicle.

You should definitely check out the HS 250h; but if you're looking for a hybrid for hybrid's sake, you'd probably be better served with a 2010 Toyota Prius. And if practicality, simple comfort, and high mileage are the priorities, the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid or its twin, the 2010 Mercury Milan Hybrid, are well worth a look.

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