One look at the frumpy 2010 Lexus HS250h confirms what we've suspected all along of Prius drivers: the hybrid's smug visual statement is as important to the purchaser as its fuel economy. This explains why the dorky Prius handily outsells the quite ordinary-looking Camry Hybrid, and is probably why Lexus didn't simply build a hybrid version of the ES.
The Lexus ES, as you know, is essentially a reskinned and well-equipped Camry. Since the Camry Hybrid already exists, one assumes Toyota could have created a hybrid version of the ES in no time at all. But there'd be one problem: the ES is a great-looking car. To make sure that the HS looks nothing like any other Lexus, Toyota ignored the ES and created an all-new car for the brand's first hybrid-only vehicle.
The HS shares much of its platform with the European-market Avensis sedan, with an 185-inch shadow halfway between the 181-inch IS and the 191-inch ES. Its narrow and tall proportions recall the Corolla, though, which isn't exactly a great thing for the Lexus brand. Importantly, however, it uses the double-wishbone rear suspension from the Avensis in place of the torsion-beam setup in the Corolla (and the Prius), which results in better ride and handling. In fact, the HS250h handles better than its seriously front-heavy 61/39 percent weight distribution would suggest.
We suspect that even despite the expensive hybrid hardware, the HS250h will start at about the same price as the ES350 (in the low-to-mid-$30,000 range). Subtract that hybrid price penalty from the HS, and you realize that it is the de-facto new entry-level model for Lexus. Its cabin echoes this sentiment--it's filled with padded surfaces covered in fine, French-stitched materials, but its narrow dimensions and awkward front quarter-windows make it feel much more like a tarted-up economy-car than the true entry-luxury car that Lexus says it is.
The Camry Hybrid offers a tremendous four more inches of shoulder room in the front seats--but then again, its trunk and fuel tank are significantly smaller than the HS's. The clear advantage in the driving department goes to the HS, too--it shares the Camry's powertrain, but significant revisions to the electronics make the driving experience far more natural. The constant driveline surging that we've noted in the Camry is absent, the ride is well-damped, and the response of the brake pedal is linear and free of any sign that the computers are continually switching between regenerative and friction braking.
The cockpit is designed with Lexus's new ergonomic concept, which includes a center console that juts out between the front seats. It's a marvel of efficiency, which is only slightly diminished when fitted with the optional navigation system. That system, which debuted on the 2010 RX crossover, uses a joystick controller that eliminates a few dashboard buttons, making some tasks more complicated.
The HS250h can be loaded with an enormous assortment of impressive technologies (including lane-keep assist, a head-up display, and a truly fabulous infotainment and navigation system that will accept destinations you've uploaded from your home computer), but all of those systems fail to mask the HS's econo-car roots. On the road, you're treated to the drone of a four-cylinder engine whining endlessly when climbing long hills, accelerating onto the highway, or just keeping up with traffic. Luxury-car customers aren't used to that--when was the last time you heard four-cylinder thrum in a Lexus? (Hint: never.)
By using the platform from a narrow European economy sedan rather than the ES, the HS winds up being an awkward-looking vehicle that isn't as good at coddling its passengers as other Lexus models are. Then again, judging by the success of the Prius, maybe Lexus is on to something--the HS could just be the perfect combination of smug, snooty, and dorky that well-heeled potential Prius buyers are looking for.