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Never let it be said that high-mileage hybrids are grim, joyless, or Spartan. The 2012 Lexus HS 250h sedan was the smallest and most economical car Lexus had ever built when it went on sale in late 2009 as a 2010 model, but it’s unquestionably luxurious. Lexus has noted that more than 60 percent of luxury-car buyers would consider a hybrid if one were available, so Lexus gave them an option.
Official EPA mileage for the HS 250h is 35 mpg city/34 highway/35 combined. Lexus says the HS 250h qualifies as a Super-Ultra-Low-Emission-Vehicle (SULEV).
With the exception of a new exterior color choice, there are no changes for the 2012 edition. The manufacturer’s suggested retail price for the entry level HS 250h is $36,330 – a $700 increase over 2011. The step up Premium model also increased $700 to $39,800.
The front-drive HS, which stands for “harmonious sedan,” was Lexus’s first dedicated hybrid, just as the Prius was for its parent Toyota. Previous Lexus hybrids were adaptations of existing vehicles, including the popular RX 400h crossover – replaced for 2010 by the RX 450h – the GS 450h sports sedan, and the full-size luxury barge LS 600h. But the HS is sold as a hybrid only, with no gasoline-only version.
Lexus HS 250h vs. Toyota Prius
The comparison to the 2012 Prius is apt, since the two cars share the same basic platform. They both ride on a 106.3-inch wheelbase, though the Lexus HS 250h is two inches wider, half an inch higher, and a full nine inches longer than its hatchback relative. The HS also has a larger 2.4-liter engine – a tweaked Atkinson-cycle four cylinder – against the 1.8-liter engine used by the Prius. The complete hybrid system in the Lexus is fully 40-percent more powerful than that of the Prius: 187 horsepower compared to 134. Lexus says the powertrain enables the HS to hit 60 mph from a stop in 8.4 seconds and reaches a top speed of 112 mph.
There is one thing the HS did borrow from the Prius: driver-selectable operating modes. In addition to Normal mode which is, well, normal, there’s a Power mode, Eco mode, and EV mode. Eco maximizes fuel economy by reducing throttle response and reducing the air conditioning output. Selecting Power adds about 17 percent stronger acceleration than Normal, quite useful when passing or climbing hills. EV mode allows operation in pure electric power for around three miles if the battery has a good charge.
So while the two cars have different bodies, different engine sizes, and certainly different personas, you can view the HS 250h as a Prius with a trunk, a raft of luxury accoutrements, and a different trade-off between fuel economy and features. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld might say.
Exterior and Interior
Lacking the Prius’ high roofline and abrupt vertical tail, the more conventional sedan styling of the HS is marginally less aerodynamic than its hatchback sibling, with a drag coefficient of 0.27 rather than the Prius’ 0.25. Given that the HS is a relatively short five-seat sedan, that’s still a respectable figure.
If you’re looking for groundbreaking styling, you’re best off looking elsewhere. Unlike the Prius, it doesn’t shout, “Hey, look at me, I’m a hybrid.” The exterior look is more Toyota-like – offend no one, please everyone – than the sleek look of today’s Lexus models. Indeed, from a distance with its slab sides, it could be mistaken for a Toyota Corolla, although it does have small triangle-windows up front, in each door, like the Prius.
While the exterior might suggest a pedestrian Toyota, Lexus buyers expect luxury and features, and the HS 250h delivers. Doors open wide onto a richly equipped and carefully assembled passenger compartment. With bright instrumentation and well-designed controls that are easy to reach, it’s hard to criticize the HS. However, dedicated Lexus owners will find little that is familiar. For example, the shift lever is not in the center console position between the driver and passenger. Instead, the shifter is located in the center of the dash, à la the 2009 Prius, and is more like a joystick. They might also cringe a bit at the quality of some materials compared to the Lexus vehicles they are used to driving, as noted by Car and Driver, “The base textured leather upholstery feels more like leatherette and makes the upgraded semi-aniline leather a worthwhile upgrade.”
They might, however, cut some slack when learning that the HS has extended its green credentials beyond the hybrid powertrain with the use of earth-friendly materials. Lexus says that the hybrid car was the first vehicle in the world to use interior “ecoplastic,” Some 30 percent of the cabin and cargo area is covered in a plant derived, carbon-neutral material that will recycle easily. The appearance and feel is indistinguishable from the standard trim.
High-Tech Gear Galore
One of the characteristics that has always set a luxury vehicle apart from the crowd is the latest in automotive high technology, a trait Lexus has excelled at. The HS 250h offerings are extensive, starting with the Tech package option that has four video cameras – an up front wide-angle can peek around blind corners at low speeds, another is for backing up, another is for a lane-departure warning and inside, a camera monitors the driver’s face for distractions or drowsiness. There’s also radar for the cruise control, and a final touch is a head-up display with steering wheel controls.
If that’s not enough, the optional navigation system incorporates real-time traffic and weather, and casual-speech voice recognition. It even lets the owner customize the levels of haptic feedback in the mouse-like controller mounted on the console.
And, of course, there’s the standard expected luxo features such as leather seating – 10-way power-adjustable for the driver, eight-way adjustable for the front companion – Bluetooth for phone and music streaming and USB/iPod connectivity. A nice touch is softer-closing power window switches from the uber-luxurious LS sedan.
On The Road
Wringing performance out of a car and, at the same time, having it sip low quantities of fuel is a difficult task. But the HS compromises between the two fairly well. While approaching a steep hill with the accelerator pushed to the floor, Popular Mechanics noted the positives and negatives of the powertrain: “The little Lexus makes good use of the hybrid drivetrain; you can actually feel a swell of torque. The downside: The HS 250h’s cabin is a bit buzzy and – like all hybrids – the continuously variable transmission is flavorless compared to a traditional geared transmission.” As for combining fuel economy and performance, Motor Trend seems to have nailed what the HS is all about, “How to describe the HS driving experience? ‘Efficient?’ Yes. ‘Soothing’? Maybe. ‘Luxurious?’ Mostly. ‘Exciting?’ No. It’s just not the car’s mission.”
In The Marketplace
When the HS 250h was introduced in 2009, the questions were how it would relate to the two other compact Lexus models, the sportier IS and the more conventional ES front-wheel-drive sedan, and would it grab some prospective Prius buyers? The IS and ES fared reasonably well in 2010 while the Prius continued to dominate hybrid vehicle sales. As for the HS, it did surprisingly well, racking up 10,663 units sold, enough to be the seventh best-selling hybrid.
The automotive marketplace is ever changing and for 2011 the HS 250h faced new challenges. The first came from Lexus itself in the form of the new sporty compact CT 200h. The four-door hatchback not only delivers better fuel mileage – 43 mpg city/40 highway/40 combined – the $29,120 starting price is $7,230 less than the HS. These differences were manifested by 2012 sales numbers: The CT 200h was the third best-selling hybrid last year, racking up 14,381 sold compared with the 250h’s 2,864 that relegated it to the 14th position.
Then there’s Lincoln’s MKZ Hybrid. Its $34,330 starting price bests the HS by $1,575 and is larger and delivers way better fuel mileage, 41/36/39. And even though the HS 250h has clearly expanded Lexus’s green appeal, for a few thousand less, the Prius does offer luxury appointments like leather upholstery, and even a couple techy gizmos not found on the HS. So, more than a few astute buyers make take the advice dished out by Car and Driver: “If the HS 250h isn’t going to drive any better than the Prius, we’d rather have the mileage-and the lower monthly payment-of a Prius instead.”
But as Motor Trend pointed out, there is one thing Prius buyers cannot have: The Lexus dealer experience when buying and servicing their cars. And that is part of the Lexus luxury persona.
Prices are Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) at time of publication and do not include destination charges, taxes or licensing.
This page was updated on Jan. 25, 2012. The first comments in the thread below were started when the article was first published.