Review: 2010 Lexus HS 250h

Up Front

Would you buy a $35,000 luxury car that looks like a bulked-up Toyota Corolla and has barely half the luggage space of a Toyota (TM) Prius?

Having just test-driven a preproduction version of the new front-wheel-drive Lexus HS 250h hybrid, my answer is "yes." Arguably the most fuel-efficient and eco-friendly luxury sedan ever, the 2010 HS 250h is rated to get 35 miles-per-gallon, yet has a gorgeous wood- and leather-trimmed interior and comes packed with high-end conveniences. If you're looking for a small, classy second car and want to do something to help the environment, it's an excellent choice.

My guess is that at some point in the future—whether in 10 years or 20—many luxury cars will be like the HS 250h. They'll be smaller (the HS 250h is 185 inches long, midway between a Prius and a Toyota Camry), reasonably quick but not really sporty, and far more fuel-efficient. They'll either be powered by diesel engines—the main approach being taken by BMW (BMWG), Audi, and Mercedes (DAI)—or, like the HS 250h, by hybrid gasoline/electric power. Otherwise, they'll have all the comforts and advanced technology typical of traditional luxury cars.

The HS 250h, which is just now arriving in dealer's showrooms, is much more than an upgraded 2010 Prius. Based on a European model, the Toyota Avensis, it has a softer, quieter ride and is noticeably quicker than the Prius. The four-cylinder, 147-horsepower gasoline engine in the HS 250h is the same one found in the Toyota Camry hybrid, and the car's combined gas/electric powerplant generates a total of 187 hp, versus just 134 hp for the Prius.

The HS 250h also is more expensive than previous hybrid sedans, with the base model starting at $35,075, and the "Premium" version at $37,845. Even the cheaper model comes packed with goodies that include 17-inch alloy wheels, leather upholstery, power-adjustable front seats, full power accessories, a 10-speaker sound system, Bluetooth capability, and an iPod connection. The Premium model adds 18-inch alloy wheels, wood interior trim, rain-sensing wipers, heated outside mirrors, and a new memory system that allows each key fob to recall its user's seat, mirror, and air-conditioning settings.

A fully-loaded HS 250h costs upward of $50,000. Major options include a 15-speaker Mark Levinson sound system ($1,580), adaptive LED headlamps ($1,805), a hard-drive-based navigation system ($2,125), and a Technology Package ($3,900) that adds parking assist, a lane departure warning system, intelligent cruise control, and a heads-up display that projects instrument readings onto the windshield.

By comparison, according to the Power Information Network (PIN), the 2010 Prius sells for an average of $25,735, and even a loaded Prius V goes for a little over $32,000. The 2009 Nissan (NSANY) Altima Hybrid costs an average $25,642, the 2010 Camry Hybrid, $27,982, and the 2010 Ford (F) Fusion Hybrid costs an average $29,799. (PIN, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of the McGraw-Hill Cos.)

The HS 250h's 35 mpg rating puts it in the middle of the pack among hybrids. The 50-mpg Prius is rated significantly higher, as are the new Honda (HMC) Insight (41 mpg on average), the Honda Civic Hybrid (42 mpg), and the Fusion (39 mpg). However, the HS 250h has a 1 mpg advantage over the Camry and Altima hybrids, both rated to average 34 mpg.

My guess, though, is that many HS 250h owners will get better than 35 mpg. I made no effort to maximize mileage, yet in more than 400 miles of mainly highway driving I got 38 mpg, according to the car's trip computer, and 36.2 mpg based on how much gas it took to refill the tank.

The HS 250h is a niche product compared to the new Prius, which was the seventh-best selling automobile in the U.S. in July, when sales surged 29.7%, to 19,173. Lexus expects to sell 25,000 units of the HS 250h during the model's first full year on the market.

Behind the Wheel

If you're into sporty driving, forget about the HS 250h. There's nothing sporty about it. Like the Prius, it only comes with a continuously variable automatic transmission, which unwinds in a continuous (and boring) skein without any shifting of gears. The ride is smooth to the point of being almost boaty. The car seems to float over the pavement, which is great for smoothing out potholes but gives the driver little connection to the road. The HS 250h also the same stubby little electronic shift lever the Prius has. Basically you put the car in "drive" and go.

Still, I liked the HS 250h far more than I expected to. It's quicker than I expected, for one thing. I clocked it at 8.8 seconds in accelerating from 0 to 60, about a second faster than the 2010 Prius and at least two seconds faster than the Honda Insight. Like the Prius, the HS 250h has both an "Eco" mode to conserve gas and a "Power" mode that provides plenty of oomph to accelerate up hills and on and off highways.

The interior features a stylish and comfortable cockpit-like setup with a tapered center console that juts out into the cabin between the front seats. The navigation system has a joy-stick-style controller that allows you to move a pointer on the screen. When you want to click on something, you squeeze a button on the side of the console with your right thumb, a system that I found convenient and efficient to use.

The other high-tech gear packed in the HS250h also works better than it does in most competing models I've tested. For instance, the intelligent cruise control performed amazingly well in heavy traffic on highways around Philadelphia and Scranton, Pa. I simply set the cruise control at 65 mph and the car did the rest, slowing down to as little as 45 mph in congested areas and speeding up when the way cleared. The system also gave me regular traffic alerts about construction or traffic jams ahead.

A big negative is the HS 250h's small, 12 cu. ft trunk and the fact that the rear seats don't fold down. By comparison, the Prius has a 21.6 cu. ft. luggage space and the rear seats fold down to create a 40 cu. ft. cargo space.

A big plus in my book: The HS 250h has a conventional rear window, rather than the annoying and hard-to-see-out-of two-tiered window found in the Prius and Honda Insight.

Buy it or Bag It?

The HS 250h's toughest competitor is probably the top-of-the-line 2010 Prius V, which goes for $32,520 loaded with high-tech options that include a navigation system, intelligent cruise control, and a Lexus-style park assist system. The Prius' bigger trunk, lower price, and superior fuel economy all make it a more practical family car than the Lexus.

I see the HS 250h more as a second car, though it has a relatively roomy rear seat and could accommodate a couple with small children (as long as they pack lightly on trips). The advantages of the Lexus are its upscale image, fancier cabin, more responsive engine and more comfortable ride. It's simply a much more pleasant car to travel in than the Prius.

The other competing models to consider, in my opinion, are the Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion hybrids. Like the HS 250h, both have small trunks. But they're roomier inside, just as quick, and about as fuel-efficient as the HS 250h. They lack the cachet of a Lexus, but they both come in at about 35 grand fully loaded, the starting price for an HS 250h. Much as I like the HS 250h, it isn't for budget shoppers.

Click here to see more of the 2010 Lexus HS250h.