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.
Surprisingly, the electrically assisted power steering did not call attention to itself for being weirdly overboosted, nor is the suspension complete mush. (The base car offers an optional sport suspension, but the Premium version does not.) On the other hand, the ride wasn’t nearly as plush as the Lexus norm nor is the car as quiet. The interior trim, with padded surfaces everywhere, does live up to Lexus standards, and for a small car there’s a surprising amount of space both front and rear. Like the Prius, the HS250h has a projecting center dash pod with a weird little electronic gear shifter and a pushbutton for Park. Why can’t a hybrid have a more conventional shifter? What’s missing here is the hollowed-out space underneath for storage. The HS250h also uses the computer mouse-like multifunction controller (with the nav system) that was introduced on the current RX. It’s a little odd but fairly easy to adapt to.
Perhaps in a bid to bolster its luxury credentials, the HS250h bristles with available equipment. There are cameras both front and rear — the front one peeks out and looks to both sides, to help when you’re nosing out and can’t really see cross traffic. It’s very useful if you’ve parked next to a van or a big SUV, provided you backed into the space. The navigation interface works well, and can be complemented with XM traffic and weather. We were less enamored of the lane keep assist and its annoying chimes (BMW’s vibrating steering wheel warning is a much neater solution). There are also heated and cooled seats, a Mark Levinson audio system, adaptive front lighting, a head-up display, and an OnStar-like concierge service called Lexus Enform.
Lexus is moving in the right direction with a hybrid optimized for fuel economy rather than performance. Despite the plethora of equipment and the plush interior, the HS250h driving experience isn’t quite on par with the other Lexus models, but its 35 mpg city rating is tops among luxury-brand rides. And the 34-mpg highway figure isn’t bad, either, although it trails the (much smaller) Audi A3 TDI, which gets 42 mpg. We’ll likely see more entries in this field, as the idea of a high-mileage luxury car is one that will have increasing resonance in the coming years.
On Sale: Now
Base Price: $35,075
Size: 2.4-liter DOHC 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 147 hp @ 6000 rpm / 141 hp from electric motor
Torque: 138 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm
Transmission: Hybrid synergy drive system, CVT
L x W x H: 184.8 x 70.3 x 59.3 in
Legroom F/R: 42.6/ 34.5 in
Headroom F/R: 38.0/ 36.8 in
Base curb weight: 3682 lbs
EPA Rating (city/highway): 35/34 mpg