Lexus is no stranger to hybrids, as the company for years has offered hybrid versions of its LS and GS sedans and its RX crossover. All of those hybrids shared a similar philosophy: They prize performance first, often out-accelerating their non-hybrid counterparts, and put fuel economy second -- although they usually have managed to provide better-than-average mpg numbers as well. Each one was a great Lexus -- plush, quiet, powerful -- but as a hybrid, none was the dramatic green statement that the Toyota Prius is.
In contrast to the other Lexus hybrids, the new HS250h attempts to be just that kind of green statement. First of all, it's only available as a hybrid, so that should help cement its identity in the public's mind. Unfortunately, the design doesn't really stand out the way the Prius's does. It's a rather ordinary-looking compact sedan with vague Corolla overtones and a big chrome grille. But the car has no connection to the Corolla -- it's related to the Toyota Avensis, which is sold in Europe -- and although it's fairly narrow, its length falls between the Lexus IS and the ES.
Secondly, the car posts some very impressive fuel economy numbers: 35 mpg city, 34 mpg highway. To do so, Lexus uses its first-ever four-cylinder engine, the 2.4-liter unit from the Camry hybrid. (Although they share the same powertrain, the slightly smaller HS250h betters the Camry hybrid's fuel economy ratings by 1 mpg city and highway.) Based on my week with the car, which included one long highway road trip and lots of in-town driving, the advertised fuel economy numbers are entirely credible. According to the dashboard readout, I was able to surpass both figures without resorting to any hyper-miling tricks, but I also sometimes fell well short when driving in hilly terrain and accelerating hard.
Total system power output is 187 hp, and you need all of it to move this 3700-pound car. To accelerate with any alacrity, the CVT winds out the four-cylinder engine, which makes for an un-Lexus-like engine drone. In highway cruising the engine is quieter, but you can feel it just a bit as the system alternates between battery pack assist and charging -- it's a sensation sort of like driving into a gusty headwind. This is not uncommon with hybrids, and it's less pronounced here than in, say, the Camry hybrid. Puttering around town, the HS250h is a commendably refined hybrid, as you're rarely aware of it when the engine starts up or when it shuts down.