Barry Winfield, Contributor
The first few miles behind the wheel of the 2010 Lexus HS 250h trigger a cascade of questions about this new car's reason for being. Why a four-cylinder engine in a luxury car? Why not simply Lexus-ize the existing Toyota Camry Hybrid? Why introduce a new sedan that is so similar in size to the existing Lexus ES 350 in the first place?
But it doesn't take more than a couple of days to have these questions answered. Clearly, Lexus sees no paradox in the addition of a full hybrid to its lineup of luxury cars. Despite the fact that the 2010 Lexus HS 250h with its modest 2.4-liter gasoline engine is closer in concept to the Toyota Prius than the Lexus LS 600h, this new model nevertheless effectively represents the Lexus idea of luxury, safety and convenience in the same way that its six- and eight-cylinder stable mates do.
It's a Lexus-style hybrid, because practicality and efficiency are legitimate Lexus values, too. Is everybody on the same page now?
New Shape, Shifter Every decision during the 2010 Lexus HS 250h's gestation has obviously been carefully mulled. A new body shape tells customers this isn't just a hybrid version of an existing model. The mechanical platform (partly from the Toyota Avensis, which is marketed in Europe) provides a sophisticated wishbone-type independent rear suspension for better ride and handling, and ongoing improvements to hybrid component packaging also allow a normal-size trunk with more than 12 cubic feet of cargo space. Access to this space is through the largest trunk aperture in the Lexus sedan lineup.
Inside the HS, one finds comfortable seating in a reasonably roomy interior. Along with Lexus' striking instrumentation is the trick new remote-touch multimedia controller we first saw in the latest RX crossover models. It operates so much like the graphic user interface we all know intimately from so many days of point-and-click enterprise that it's utterly amazing nobody came up with this execution before.
The shift-by-wire drive selector is a short stalk projecting from a corner of an extended center console, and it falls conveniently to hand, even if the hard edge of the console is uncomfortably close to the right knee of tall drivers. With 30 percent of the interior's molded materials made from plant-derived plastics, the car's carbon footprint shrinks even further, driving home the new Lexus message: In the future, luxury has to be responsible and careful with finite resources.
Mysterious Sounds Essentially we're looking at the promise of a refined motoring experience without conspicuous consumption. That said, the question has to be whether the 2010 Lexus HS 250h delivers on the undertaking. And in our humble opinion, the answer is yes. Mostly. There is one aspect of its operation that provokes criticism, and that is the relationship of the engine to the continuously variable transmission (CVT) that is the heart of the Lexus-style (that is to say, Toyota-style) hybrid drive system.
With a comparatively humble 147-horsepower, 2.4-liter, Atkinson-cycle gas engine pedaling the front wheels (with the intermittent assistance of up to 40 hp from the electric motor), there is the unmistakable sound of a free-breathing 16-valve inline-4 spinning at engine speeds that are apparently not synchronized with vehicle velocity. That is, lots of furiousness, but not much speed. That's what you get with a CVT.
This decoupling of an engine's vocal signature from its actual physical progress is alien to most people's experience. Some of us remember it as a symptom of severe clutch slip. But, really, we probably just need to get used to it. After all, aircraft have engines that spool up to their point of maximum power and stay there as the plane gathers speed. So do boats. It's simply a matter of one's expectations.
Metropolitan Motoring The 2010 Lexus HS 250h's audible exertions are most noticeable when accelerating hard or while climbing gradients. When used in urban settings — the very environment hybrid technology was designed for — the new Lexus is remarkably smooth and quiet.
In fact, it's so quiet that one sometimes wonders whether the HS has unilaterally elected to operate in EV mode. In reality, you have to select EV mode at a switch panel that also offers power, normal and eco settings. Then the HS will wheel around silently at low speeds for short periods.
You never notice the engine shutting off at a stop, and even the subtle bump you occasionally feel as the gas motor is spun back to life is barely perceptible. Mostly it feels as if the car is being towed around by a giant magnet. This may not provide the mechanical involvement car nuts are looking for, but it's a seductive quality for those of us who covet a tranquil ride.
Smooth Operator The creamy propulsion fits right in with a very solid structure and smoothly suppressed ride motions delivered by the sport suspension settings that accompanied our car's optional touring package. Together they provide the HS 250h with an almost athletic grace.
It doesn't hurt that the car's electric power-steering mechanism has been finessed beyond the company's earlier attempts. The initial transition off-center is still a touch digital in the way the assistance steps in, and the effort level feels a tad artificial, but few drivers would complain about the way the steering actually directs the car. Path control is pretty surgical for a 3,700-pound luxo-hybrid lined with leather and packed with every gadget known to man. Even our test track specialists came back impressed.
Of course, one could argue for a case of low expectations here, but if we assumed the dedicated hybrid application for the HS would produce a sluggish car, we were way off target. For one thing, the 0-60-mph sprint takes a reasonable 8.7 seconds from a standstill (8.3 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip), and the quarter-mile is dispatched in 16.4 seconds at 86.9 mph. That's not bad for a car returning gas mileage in the mid-30s. And the HS 250h's ability to come to a stop from 60 mph in 125 feet and negotiate the slalom in 62.9 mph definitely makes it competitive in dynamic terms with other midsize sedans.
Beyond the Comfort Zone This Lexus even won us over when we strayed beyond the hybrid-friendly confines of Santa Monica. It attacks the local canyon roads with steady, deliberate determination. While not exactly nimble, the 2010 Lexus HS 250h maintains a very stable manner when cornering hard, and it will accept heavy braking deep into turns without pushing off line or losing its composure.
Despite having 61 percent of its not-inconsiderable mass on the front wheels, which were shod with the optional P225/45R18 Toyo Proxes A20 all-season tires, there is often more ability to turn in toward the apex — even in the middle of a corner — than we expected. Once its limits are reached, this Lexus simply understeers progressively. Throughout all of these gymnastics, body roll is held firmly in check, and its composure is flawed only by a tendency to pitch forward a little under hard braking, its most noticeable departure from an otherwise flat stance.
Of course, an athletic assault on a canyon road is not the HS 250h's real raison d'être. That it retains a degree of sporting aptitude is simply an extension of the quiet, effortless urban role it was born to fulfill. We should not shortchange the HS on its open-road performance, either. The careful attention to aero flow keeps wind rush noise to a minimum, and since there isn't much mechanical noise being generated, the Lexus cruises extremely quietly. Even the Toyo tires are hushed, responding only to certain textures in cast-concrete pavement with brief growls of protest.
Hybrid Lexus Nobody can quibble about the equipment levels available in this model. From the amazing Mark Levinson surround-sound stereo system to Park Assist to the Lexus driver-snooze monitor, the HS is replete with high-tech gadgetry. Some of which can be annoying, actually.
The front observation camera, for example, seems to display pretty much what you see out of the front anyway, and it just won't switch off and go away. We tried fooling with the settings menu, but to no avail. Every time the car slowed to a walking pace, the display would pop on, even deploying the screen when it had previously been stowed. But in the main, the 2010 Lexus HS 250h is a remarkably servile and user-friendly device, and most of its technology operates invisibly on the fringes.
In a way, the 2010 Lexus HS 250h is both the ultimate hybrid and the ultimate Lexus. It's the ultimate hybrid because (aside from the oddities of the CVT) it drives pretty much like a conventional car, and the only time you notice the hybrid technology is when you find yourself driving past gas stations with a carefree attitude. And the HS is the ultimate Lexus because it offers perfect convenience without distracting you by making a point of its competence.
The 2010 Lexus HS 250h is perfectly functional and nothing less. Then again, it's nothing more than that either.
Edmunds.com Senior Editor Bryn MacKinnon says: The Lexus HS 250h is probably quite a nice vehicle to pilot, but I have no idea. It's also very likely a lovely (and necessary) addition to the automaker's hybrid lineup, taking what Toyota has learned from the Prius and ratcheting it all up a step or two, but I can't corroborate that. I can't tell you if it's the luxurious midsize hybrid sedan that luxury midsize hybrid sedan shoppers have been hoping for because I couldn't get over the strange and awkward operation of the Remote Touch controller.
The slick, the-future-is-now controller perched on the peninsular center console was one of the first things I noticed when I got into the driver seat, and I was eager to use it. It had an inviting, ergonomically pleasing, computer mouselike shape, and the attractive metal-and-leather palm plate sat above a rich, deep blue, glossy background. But using the thing was anything but fun.
Instead of behaving like a mouse with its well-established, straightforward point-and-click action, the Remote Touch controller's movement was jerky and jumpy; as I attempted to glide the indicator smoothly over the screen to select a virtual button, the controller fought me the whole time, like a moody toddler who won't leave a toy store. And required about as much concentration as that toddler, too. (I'm an expert in such things, believe me.)
Remote Touch also employs something called "haptic technology," which is supposed to help the user by giving tactile feedback via motions and vibrations, à la Nintendo's Wii. I can't tell you if it helped, but I can say that I frequently and wildly overshot buttons on the screen.
"These seats are fantastic!" my husband cooed from the passenger seat while I struggled to change the radio station. Finally, I tried tapping at the screen with my finger, figuring Lexus would have a backup system for people like me, but no. Sitting haplessly at a stoplight, I felt as if 36 years spent honing my motor skills and eye-hand coordination had been made null in one fell swoop.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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