Lexus HS 250h luxury hybrid (first drive)

CNET Car Tech takes an in-depth look at Lexus' new luxury hybrid.

Lexus HS 250h

When we first saw Lexus' new luxury hybrid, it was being revealed at the 2009 Detroit auto show. Recently we were given an opportunity to preview the new Lexus HS 250h, a vehicle that the automaker is calling the world's first luxury dedicated hybrid. It also calls the HS an economy luxury car, which to us seems like a bit of an oxymoron.

As I approached the vehicle, my first thought was, "Oh my, they've Lexusified and hybridized a Corolla! This is going to be a disaster." I couldn't have been more wrong.

True, the HS 250h looks like your run-of-the-mill, boring Toyota/Lexus econobox, but under the rather plain skin is a rather exceptional vehicle, particularly when it comes to cabin tech.

HS 250h interior
The floating center console lifts the controls up to be easily reached. Lexus

The HS 250h's dash is an ergonomic dream. Its floating center console lifts the climate and audio controls up to where they can be accessed without reaching. The flip-up navigation screen is moved up to the top of the dash, where it can be viewed in our periphery without taking our eyes off of the road.

At the bottom of the console, Lexus' new remote-touch controller falls naturally into the drivers' hand. A sort of joystick/trackball hybrid, the remote-touch controller uses a control stick that is moved with your fingertip to select options from the HS' icon-based interface. Movements are 1:1 with where the pointer is on the screen, so there's never any issue with losing the cursor. Haptic-force feedback notifies you through touch when an option has been selected, which assists in navigation without you having to take eyes off of the road for too long.

We thought the system would be terribly distracting on the road, but once again we were mistaken. We were able to quickly fly through the menus to select audio sources and choose destinations. Some users will miss the touch-screen controls, but we think the haptic feedback of the remote-touch controller is a much better substitute.

We've heard the Mark Levinson stereo system previously in other Lexus vehicles, so we weren't surprised by the fantastic audio quality from our USB-connected iPod or A2DP-connected Bluetooth phone.

HS 250h
Even in Power mode, the HS 250h isn't a high performer. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The Lexus HS 250h's power delivery didn't impress us as much as the level of cabin tech. The HS features four drive modes: a normal mode that accelerates with about the same gusto as a Toyota Prius, an ECO mode that decreases throttle inputs and climate control systems for more thrifty driving, a Power mode that is the opposite of ECO mode, and an EV mode that moves the vehicle under purely electric power up to 20 mph.

The Toyota-sourced Hybrid Synergy Drive is at its smoothest under the hood of the HS 250h. A 2.4-liter gasoline engine is paired with an electric engine to make a combined 187 horsepower. Fuel economy is an estimated 35 miles per gallon city and 34 mpg highway; we're assuming that's in ECO mode. Transition between electric and gasoline power trains is almost imperceptible thanks to the HS' quiet cabin keeping engine noise out.

An exhaust heat recovery system recaptures wasted heat from the combustion to reduce warm-up time and allow the engine to be shut off sooner and more often.

We didn't expect that a car with a mode that dumbs down the throttle response would place a high premium on handling and we were right. However, the HS is a capable vehicle; its road manners are predictable, safe, and controllable. Push it into a turn and the HS will deliver easily correctable understeer all day long. We have reason to believe that's just the kind of handling the HS' target audience wants.

While we can forgive the lackluster handing, the regenerative brakes had us clenching at each stop. It's difficult to tell when the regeneration/friction switch is going to occur, which made modulating the brakes difficult. Our vehicle was a preproduction model, so perhaps the gremlins will be worked out before the HS hits dealers this fall.

Lexus has also endowed the HS with numerous safety systems, such as radar-guided, active, cruise control and various levels of stability and traction control. At any given time, up to five cameras are working to keep the driver safe.

LKA camera
Lane Keep Assist uses two cameras to watch the road and the driver to keep the vehicle in its lane. Lexus

Lane Keep Assist (LKA) uses a camera to detect lane markers and a second camera to detect the driver's head movements. If the HS drifts out of its lane without using a turn signal and the system determines that the driver is distracted, LKA will nudge the steering wheel to correct the vehicle's course. Drivers can easily push through the LKA's inputs if, in fact, the lane change is intentional. We tested the system on a clear highway and, as promised, the HS will keep itself in its lane if allowed to drift. The feedback is gentle, but noticeable, and definitely got our attention, which we think is the point.

LKA only works when the HS is under active cruise control, when the driver's hand is on the steering wheel, and when the driver is not looking ahead. If these conditions aren't met, the system merely uses a lane-departure-warning steering-wheel buzz to alert the driver.

Intelligent High Beams (IHB) uses a camera to detect the headlamps and tail lights of oncoming vehicles and adjusts the high beams accordingly. While the wide-view front monitor uses a grill-mounted ultrawide-angle camera to peek around corners, the rear-view monitor is a wide-angle camera mounted on the trunk. The total camera count is five.

We're not sure if entry-level luxury buyers will respond to the HS' drab economy-car exterior, but a short stint in the driver's seat should win over at least the technophiles, as the HS 250h is packed to the gills with cutting-edge entertainment, convenience, and safety tech, as well as an advanced hybrid drivetrain.

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