We're sensing an eerie state of calm from the Lexus officials at the introduction of the 2010 Lexus HS 250h in Newport Beach, California. It's the kind of calm you experience at a poker table, when you're waiting for the other guy to finally lay down his cards.
Then it happens. An executive cheerily admits that he hasn't a clue about how well this newest member of the Lexus family will be received by the marketplace. Fuel prices are too volatile, he says.
In this line of work, a response like this would normally be intercepted by the brain in its formative state and its utterance prevented. So either the Lexus brass is speaking the truth or they're simply being coy.
We would find out later that it's some combination of the two.
A New Lexus The 2010 Lexus HS 250h is the new entry-level luxury sedan from Toyota's hugely successful premium brand that's intended to do battle with the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Traditionally this post in the model lineup is occupied by the Lexus IS, and it will continue to be so, but the company reckons there's room for something else, too. Something that's a hybrid.
That little "h" in the model designation signals that the HS 250h is indeed a hybrid. The HS 250h is built on a front-wheel-drive platform that is shared loosely with the 2010 Toyota Prius, and like the Prius, there won't be a non-hybrid version of the HS 250h. However, Lexus officials insist the HS 250h is not simply a sedan-ized version of the Prius runabout.
To drive this point home, Chief Engineer Hiro Koba points out that the HS 250h shares no body panels or suspension components with the Prius. The new baby Lexus, he continues, also employs revised welds and different flavors of steel in the stampings that comprise the chassis.
Still, there are similarities when you consider that the Prius and HS 250h both ride on an identical 106.3-inch wheelbase and their track widths are within a few tenths of an inch of each other.
The bottom line? If you wanted to get an idea of how a 2010 Lexus HS 250h might fit you, try on a Prius. It won't be drastically different in terms of interior space. Pricing of the HS 250h, which goes on sale in August, has not yet been announced, but count on a base price in the mid-$30Ks, with loaded versions coming in under $40 grand.
Big Small Car A new double-wishbone rear suspension is in place in this car, distinguishing it from the Prius, but this is not to fuel your visions of back-road antics. Instead, it aims to coddle you with a supple ride quality. This is still a Lexus, after all, and isolation continues to take precedence over sportiness. Of course, the battery pack's ample mass can be felt from the driver seat, just as in so many hybrids. It's like carrying a few bags of concrete in the trunk.
The fully electric power steering feels less artificial than that found in many hybrids, yet it still leaves those fussy details of the road's surface to be picked up by the more communicative steering racks of its competition.
The 2010 Lexus HS 250h rides on the shortest wheelbase in the Lexus lineup, even if its 185-inch overall length slots it right between the Lexus IS and ES sedans. Nevertheless, the HS 250h has plenty of space for backseat passengers thanks to a roof line that could have been lifted intact from a larger car. It can also swallow four golf bags in the trunk.
This "big small car" philosophy does wonders for cabin packaging efficiency. It also makes the HS 250h strongly resemble a Toyota Corolla.
Hybrid Powertrain Dichotomy Further distancing the HS 250h from the Prius is its larger 147-horsepower 2.4-liter inline-4 Atkinson-cycle engine and hybrid system borrowed from the Camry Hybrid. As in the Camry Hybrid, the HS 250h enjoys a combined output of 187 hp.
This isn't enough potency to turn the 3,682-pound HS 250h into a hot rod, but neither does it make the car agonizingly slow. According to Lexus, 60 mph comes up in 8.4 seconds and the quarter-mile goes by in 16.6 seconds.
Unlike early hybrids that traded some fuel savings in exchange for enhanced thrust, the HS 250h is solidly in the fuel-sipper camp. The 2010 Lexus HS 250h turns in EPA fuel economy of 35 mpg city/34 mpg highway, a result assisted by the body's slippery 0.27 drag coefficient.
A low-drag body also helps reduce wind noise, too. While driving the HS 250h around the streets and highways of Orange County, California, we found that the HS 250h easily lets you carry on conversations with minimal background noise. Electric-only propulsion at slow speeds adds to the impression of refinement.
And then you floor the throttle and the HS 250h four-banger lets out a coarse moan like a bleating goat on an infinite audio loop, thanks to the continuously variable transmission (CVT) that holds the engine at a single loud speed. Sonorous it isn't.
EV Mode switches off the gasoline engine entirely, but this only works at low speeds if there is ample juice remaining in the battery. Eco-weenies can also make the mapping of the throttle more sluggish by switching it out of Power mode into Normal or Eco mode. This is primarily a driver conditioning system, though Eco mode also tweaks the operation of the air-conditioning to further improve fuel economy.
A New Definition of "Loaded" When it comes to cutting-edge features, the 2010 Lexus HS 250h leads its class. And it doesn't hit you over the head with its hybrid nature. There's no freakish space-pod Prius-esque dashboard. The numerous controls are laid out logically and operate with an eye toward intuition. Aside from the platypus bill that houses the Remote Touch multifunction controller on the center console, the cabin appears largely conventional at a glance.
There's a lot going on, though. For example, the Technology package includes more cameras than you'll find at the scene of Ms. Lohan's latest drunken misadventure. There's a back-up camera and a front-view camera system that allows you to peer around corners at T-junction intersections. There's another camera array clustered around the rearview mirror for the dynamic cruise control, pre-collision warning system and intelligent high beams.
Another available function is a lane-keeper system that chimes an alert when you unintentionally wander out of your lane. This system can also apply steering torque to help the driver realign the car within its lane. (We are living in the future, friends.)
An additional camera mounted in the instrument cluster is aimed at the nut behind the wheel. This driver monitor system uses facial pattern recognition and other signals to determine if you're paying attention and feeds this into the pre-collision system.
Many of these vehicle functions can be monitored on the available head-up display.
There's more. The 2010 Lexus HS 250h marks the debut of Lexus Enform, a subscription-based communications system similar in concept to GM's OnStar. If you opt for the navigation system, Lexus Enform expands to include a destination assistance function and — best of all — the ability to zap instructions to the car's navigation system from, say, your office computer.
The Lexus Quotient When you plop into the smooth cushion of the driver seat, you might notice the cool blue hue around the Remote Touch controller or the stitched leather atop the instrument binnacle and the ship's bow that bisects the console. The exterior styling may suggest a lowly Toyota, but the cabin says Lexus more convincingly.
Any surface with which your fingertips will routinely come in contact has a consistent texture and a low-gloss finish. The wood accents are among the few missteps in the interior, looking like a last-minute attempt to slap some old-school frumpiness onto an otherwise contemporary space.
Fortunately, operation of the HS 250h's numerous technological gewgaws doesn't require an engineering degree. You simply get in and use them.
Timing Is Everything? The nature of automaking is that it takes several years to go from concept to production. So when an automaker forges ahead with a new vehicle specification, it's gambling that — years later — the market conditions will materialize as it originally anticipated.
It can be a multimillion-dollar crapshoot, or even a multibillion-dollar one. Sometimes an automaker rolls lucky sevens and turn out the original Dodge Caravan, and sometimes it's snake eyes and it ends up with the Kia Borrego.
In the case of the 2010 Lexus HS 250h, Lexus would have been right on the money back when gas was four bucks a gallon. But since consumer buying habits are linked so intricately to fuel prices, and since fuel prices have fallen to just over $2 per gallon, the HS 250h finds itself facing an identity crisis.
Fuel savings appear to be key to this car's future success, since it's not the dynamic rival of entry-level offerings from other luxury marques. During today's lull in fuel prices, Lexus will have to double down on its bet with the HS 250h's bulging technological portfolio. One thing's for certain. Lexus can't rely on the HS 250h's looks to sell this car.
Or maybe it will be a smash hit even in the absence of expensive fuel or shapely sheet metal. Lexus has a history of finding surprising commercial success in mild-mannered front-wheel-drive sedans — cue the Lexus ES — so perhaps the social acceptance of hybrids will help propel the HS 250h to prosperity. Time will tell.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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