Thumbs Up: Comfort & ride quality make long days behind the wheel enjoyable
Thumbs Down: Too many techno-toys, pricey when optioned out
Buy This Car If: You want to enjoy luxury while saving the planet
Looking for an entry level, luxury hybrid sedan? Then look no further than the Lexus HS 250h, because it literally is the only vehicle in this segment. Sure, there are excellent hybrid sedan choices from Ford, Nissan and Toyota, but none of them carry the prestige or come with the amenities of the Lexus HS 250h. Rather than re-badging a Toyota Prius or Camry hybrid, Lexus started with a clean sheet of paper for the HS 250h. First, the platform isn’t shared with any other vehicle in Toyota’s hybrid lineup. The exterior is unique as well, and features refined styling that fits in with the Lexus product line and will still look good ten years from now. No automaker can afford a single model with entirely unique components, so the HS 250h does dip into the Toyota parts bin for its drivetrain, which comes from a Toyota Camry Hybrid.
Sit down in the HS 250h, and the first thing that you’ll notice is the vast array of techno-gadgetry. There’s Lexus’ Remote Touch interface for the nav system, audio controls, climate controls and vehicle settings. Equipped with the Tech Package, my tester had the Lane Keep Assist, which gives the driver an audible warning and corrects steering (gently) should you wander out of your lane. Radar distancing cruise control? Yes, it’s got that. Rear vision camera system? Yes, it’s got that along with a front view camera system in case you need a full panoramic view in front of your car. Heads up display with speed and navigation information? Yes, it’s got that, too. Park assist, for drivers who are parallel-parking-challenged? Yes, the Tech Package includes that as well. Gadgetry aside, no one builds a better interface between driver and automobile than Lexus. Their Remote Touch is far more intuitive than BMW’s iDrive, and provides better feedback to the user.
The downside to all this technology is that, while intuitive, it still takes some reading to learn how to operate each feature. The owner’s manual is over 600 pages long, and the manual for the navigation system is just over 400 pages. Thankfully, Lexus also includes an 85 page quick reference guide, which is all that most drivers will need to figure out the car, its controls and its features. If you’re buying an HS 250h from a Lexus dealer, plan on spending a few hours taking delivery if the sales rep explains each and every feature.
If you’ve ever driven a Prius or a Camry Hybrid, the HS 250h will feel very familiar. If you’ve never driven a hybrid vehicle, you’ll need to take a few minutes to learn the layout, which differs slightly from a gas or diesel car. First, the HS 250H doesn’t use a conventional key. A transmitter is used to lock and unlock the doors, and wirelessly “unlocks” the igntion. Sit in the driver’s seat, close the door, step on the brake and hit the “Power” button, and the HS 250h comes to life. The seat moves into the saved position, as does the steering wheel. The instruments come to life, and the only indication that the car is good to go is the “Ready” light on the dashboard. LIke the Prius, the HS 250h doesn’t have a gear shift; instead, it has a selector lever that resembles a joystick on the dashboard. Move the selector lever to “D”, release the parking brake and you’re off and driving. As an alternative to “D”, the “B” setting will allow for some engine braking, useful in hilly terrain. The HS 250h has several driving modes, including “Eco”, which maximizes mileage, and “Power” which delays transitioning the CVT to maximize performance (at the expense of MPG, of course). An EV mode allows the driver to run on battery power only for lower speeds and short distances; maybe I’m too liberal with my right foot, but I never could get the HS 250h to stay in EV mode for more than a few seconds. When you reach your destination, press the “P” button (for Park, of course), apply the parking brake and press the Power button. The HS 250h powers down, unlocks the doors and moves the seat and steering wheel out of your way.
Where the HS 250h excels is driver and passenger comfort. The seats are premium quality ventilated leather, and like all Lexus vehicles the cabin is as quiet as a tomb. Ride comfort is outstanding, and I can’t think of a better vehicle on the planet for those with long commutes in rush-hour traffic. As you’d expect, both driver and passenger get to pick their temperature from a dual zone climate control system, and even rear seat passengers get their own vents. Considering the HS 250h’s relatively small size (it’s 5” shorter than a Toyota Camry), rear seat heat and leg room is impressive. Unless you hang out with a lot of NBA players, none of your friends or relatives will complain about riding in the back seat. Interior fit and finish is on par with Lexus’ usual standards, which is to say it’s as good as anything else on the road.
While driver and passenger comfort is important, I’m always more focused on how a car performs. The HS 250h won’t win you any trophies at your local drag strip (unless you throw down against Priuses and Honda Insights), but that’s not the purpose of the car. For normal driving, power is adequate and better than you’d expect from a hybrid. You rarely notice the transition from battery to gasoline power unless you’re watching the energy monitor on the information display. The CVT transmission does what it’s supposed to do, although I can’t help but wonder if a properly sorted automatic transmission could achieve equivalent mileage while giving a better driving experience. The brakes, which use regenerative technology to recharge the batteries, take some getting used to. If you’ve ever driven a car with lifetime brake pads, you’ll know the feel; difficult to modulate in the beginning, but familiar after a few practice stops. Handling was on par with other FWD luxury sedans, although the HS 250h did feel somewhat front heavy. Again, this is an observation and not a complaint; you buy a car like this for it’s comfort and fuel economy (I saw 33.4 MPG in a mix of city and highway driving), not for it’s racetrack performance. For those who want their fuel economy with a slightly harder edge, Lexus does offer a Touring Package option that includes a firmer suspension.
So what didn’t I like? I’ve never been a fan of technology for technology’s sake, and the tester I drove had more bells and whistles than you’d ever need. As equipped, my HS 250h Premium model came with the front and rear camera system, the navigation system package, the rear spoiler, the tech package and the preferred accessory package, which drove the sticker price up to $44,975. If I were buying one, I’d start with a base model and add the Touring Package for the 18” wheels and firmer suspension, which would put me out the door at a sticker price of $37,125. By not checking the option box for the Tech Package (Lane Keep Assist, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, Heads Up Display, Park Assist, Pre Collision System) and the Navigation System, I would have saved myself $6,025 and eliminated features that I’d never use. Even the base model HS 250h comes remarkably well equipped with leather seats, Bluetooth phone, premium audio, Safety Connect (Lexus’ version of OnStar), dual zone climate control and many other features you’d pay extra for from another manufacturer. Best of all, the base model has a sticker price of $34,650, which makes it an attractive alternative to gasoline-only sedans in the entry level luxury market.
What’s surprising to me is that Lexus is having a hard time moving the HS 250h. Toyota sells around 10,000 Priuses each month, and Lexus had expectations of selling 22,000 HS 250h models in the first year. Lackluster sales have forced them to revise that number downward by quite a bit, and Lexus now estimates that they’ll sell about 14,000 of the hybrid sedans this year. I’m not sure that the blame falls on Toyota monopolizing the market with the Prius: instead, I think the public is completely unaware of the HS 250h. I can’t recall a single ad for the car, and you rarely see it referenced against other hybrid sedans from non-luxury manufacturers. You certainly don’t see many on the road. That’s a shame, because if you want a tastefully styled hybrid sedan that will carry four adults in supreme comfort, the HS 250h should definitely be on your short list.