LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas - Toyota and its Lexus luxury division have been in the forefront of hybrid-powertrain vehicles for quite a while now. Claimed to be the world's first "dedicated" luxury hybrid, the new HS 250h is Lexus' fourth hybrid model, joining the RX 400h crossover SUV, GS 450h sport sedan, and full-size LS 600h L luxury sedan.
Though its fuel economy comes nowhere close to that of a Toyota Prius, the HS gives Lexus a reasonably thrifty sedan to satisfy environmentally-conscious customers. Promising 70 percent fewer emissions than an equivalent gasoline-engine model, the HS 250h gets a fuel-economy estimate of 35 miles per gallon in city driving and 34 mpg on the highway.
Likely buyers are "forward thinkers," said Brian Smith, vice-president for sales and dealer development, "who like to be informed about the next big thing." These affluent folks (with a $155,000 median annual household income) "believe their car makes a social statement." Lexus notes that 54 percent of current hybrid owners have household incomes that reach into six figures, and three-fifths of entry-level luxury vehicle owners would have considered a hybrid, had one been available.
Similar to the powertrain used in the Toyota Camry Hybrid sedan, the Lexus Hybrid Drive system includes a 2.4-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine, producing 147 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 138 pound-feet at 4400 rpm. The 244.8-volt battery pack provides 40 horsepower, for a combined total of 187 hp. Sitting between the rear seat and the trunk, the battery pack consists of 204 cells. Lexus says the nickel-metal-hydride battery should last for the life of the vehicle. The continuously variable transmission (CVT) is similar to the one used in other Toyota/Lexus hybrids, but it's a next-generation design with higher output.
ECO and Power modes are available, along with an EV (full-elecric) mode button. An HS sedan can run up to 2 miles on battery power alone, at 15 mph or less. Modes affect how far you must push on the gas pedal to get response; and how great that response is.
Much more conventional in appearance than Toyota's Prius, the HS sedan is nearly 10 inches longer overall, though built on the same 106.3-inch wheelbase. Measuring 185 inches long and 70 inches wide, the HS 250h stands 59.3 inches tall and weighs 3,682 pounds. That makes the HS more than 600 pounds heavier than a Prpius. Its drag coefficient (a measure of slipperiness through the air) is an impressively low 0.27.
Grille bars form a solid surface. Two air intakes provide cooling: upper intake for the hybrid system, and lower intake for engine cooling. Lexus promotes the HS sedan's gullwing-shape roof. Trunk space totals 12.1 cubic feet, with a very wide opening for luggage loading. Standard 17-inch alloy wheels are mounted, with 18-inch tires optional. Intelligent high-beam headlights are available, with an automatic switch. An infrared-reduction windshield is installed.
Inside the HS sedan, occupants get slim sculpted seats and the driver faces a multi-information display. A single gauge shows hybrid-system operation and fuel level. A multi-function heads-up display is optional. So is a navigation system, with a rise-up screen. Operating functions can be personalized to suit the driver.
Lexus Enform telematics is installed in all HS sedans, with a one-year trial subscription included. An eDestination system can download destination information from a computer. XM real-time traffic information and weather alerts are available, too. The standard 10-speaker audio system includes a six-CD changer. A USB connection with an iPod port is standard. Bluetooth connectivity also is standard. Lexus's Smart Access system works with electro-biological sensors.
Ten airbags are standard, which Lexus says is a "class-leading" total. Available features include Lane Keep and Pre-Collision systems, along with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control. Lane Keep Assist works with a button at the steering wheel, and is intended for use on well-developed highways. Watch out, though: this high-tech hybrid may be watching you. One camera sits on the steering column, observing the driver.
Along Arkansas highways, HS sedan performs somewhat mildly but delivers quiet, easygoing ride
Not only does the HS look big, it feels bigger-yet inside. Behind the wheel, one fact stands out immediately: the HS comes across as awfully complicated. Controls are far too numerous for comfort, for drivers who aren't enamored by excess technology. Most features become clear during a lengthy session on the road, but it's somewhat overwhelming initially. Then too, some of the high-tech items are extra-cost options, which may or may not be installed on a given example. The cockpit itself is rather overpowering, with an extra-long center console that stretches back between the seats.
On the road, the HS 250h feels like heavy car. Even so, it responds enthusiastically to the accelerator pedal, if only to a moderate degree. The difference between ECO and Power mode is noticeable, but hardly dramatic.
In expressway driving, the HS needs a little more correction than expected, and doesn't feel quite as secure as other Lexus models. On twisty two-lane roads, this sedan actually behaves better, breezing through curves quite handily. Ride quality is quite nice on nearly all pavement surfaces. Occupants can feel even smaller bumps, but only mildly.
Prices have not yet been established, but sales begin in mid-August 2009. Lexus intends to make 25,000 HS sedans available in the first year of production. To ease the minds of potential buyers who worry about battery life and replacement costs, Lexus points out that only about 100 batteries have been replaced on any Toyota/Lexus vehicles (most of those due to accidents).
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