LEXUS HS250h DEFIES REASON
by Casey Williams
Little sporting hybrids are not usually the types of cars I hop into for seven hours of driving, into a predicted snowstorm. I envision prissy little cars with high-strung personalities that are frugal, but not a buggy full of fun. My partner coming in the door after driving home through hellacious weather, and vibrating with excitement, should have been my first clue that the HS250h was more than met appearances.
Part Prius with heavy sprinkles of Lexus IS250 and LS600h, the HS250h is a compact-sized luxury hybrid for which it is apparently the only categorical reference. Sport sedan styling is highlighted by an incredibly aerodynamic profile that first greets the wind with a smooth three-bar chrome grille, flared headlamps, and swept windshield. Eighteen-inch alloys with low-profile tires looked great, gripped corners well, and performed a surprising job of handling deep snow. High-tech LED taillamps are standard.
George Jetson never imagined an automotive interior like this. It is at once luxurious and hyper-technical – like a leather-upholstered iPOD. Twin analog gauges look normal, but the left one communicates whether the batteries are being charged or depleted instead of engine rpm. The center of the dash flows up to a touchscreen and contains buttons for climate, audio, and navigation controls. A gay little gear selector is probably best engaged with pinkies raised. As with the RX350, the HS comes with a mouse-type controller to work through menus. Way cool, you can actually feel when the arrow has highlighted a particular function.
And there’s plenty to control. A heads-up display shows speed, navigation directions, and through “Touch Tracer” press-sensitive steering wheel controls, which audio or phone button you are pressing. Cell phones connect with Bluetooth and you can voice-activate the audio, climate, and audio systems from a button on the steering wheel. iPODs connect through a USB port, allowing you to scroll through favorite songs, artists, and albums with the mouse. It takes patience if you have a music store’s worth of music, but at least you can find your song through the car’s menus.
Lane Keep Assist, activated by another button on the steering wheel, uses cameras to monitor the lane markings. When you start to cross one, the system adds tension to the steering wheel and beeps. If you look closely, you might notice the big Lexus logo in the grille is actually just a good place to hide a radar unit that automatically adjusts the cruise control speed when approaching vehicles from behind and detects too fast closing speeds to warn drivers of impending collisions with flashing lights. A wide view front camera helps you see around parked cars while nosing into traffic. Keyless entry and starting can be programmed to remember preferences from multiple drivers upon arrival.
With all of the technical sophistication, it would be easy to forget the HS is primarily a luxurious Lexus. Awesome heated/cooled leather seats, stitching around the instrument hood and center control stack, wood grain trim, and leather steering wheel exceed all expectations. XM Satellite Radio entertained while the Zagat restaurant guide provided nourishment. More than once, the NAV system warned of slowing traffic miles ahead and gave me a chance to route around it. The stereo sounded good, especially when cranked, but Mark Levinson needs to re-furbish this concert hall to match other Lexus cabins.
During dinner in downtown Chicago, I watched snow “fall” sideways down the river, between the skyscrapers. While I was eating, five inches of snow fell, making the roads were an absolute mess. There wasn’t a snowplow in sight. I brushed off the HS, stabbed the start button, twitched the gear lever, and eased away without a blink of the traction control system. Impressive.
I think part of the HS250h’s poor weather confidence is its smooth powertrain. An Atkinson cycle four-cylinder engine generates 147 HP. Combine that with the hybrid electrical system, and you put 187 HP to the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission. Normal, Power, Eco, and EV modes alter throttle response and A/C settings to change the car’s attitude; EV mode allows the car to be driven short distances on electricity alone. Fuel economy is rated 35/34-MPG city/hwy.
I wish you could have seen the valet’s face when I stopped in front of my hotel. It took a few minutes to teach him how drive the car, but when he brought it back to me hours later, a big smile came across his face. “Nice car,” he said as he handed me the fob. Nice car, indeed.
So, how do you rectify the HS250h in your mind? It has enough technology to star in a sci-fi flick, but is a joy to drive at high speeds over long distances. It defies expectations and categories. Your mind wants to compare it to other near luxury sport sedans or eco-hybrids, but it really can’t. It is special, and after driving it, nothing will ever be the same. All of that specialness comes with an as-tested price of $46,547, making it competitive with the Acura TSX, BMW 330d, and Mercury Milan Hybrid.
Please send questions and comments to Casey at CRWAuto@aol.com.