Test Drive: 2010 Lexus HS250h

Lexus HS250h saves gas costs for those who can easily afford to buy it

In its quest to "minimize emissions and maximize mileage," Lexus is offering its first 4-cylinder econocar for the well-heeled, the 2010 HS250h.

The entry-level sedan joins the RX450h crossover and GS450h and LS600h sedans in the hybrid fraternity to give Lexus a full-range of vehicles as fuel-economy laws tighten.

HS stands for "harmonious sedan" in bringing together gas and electricity. The 250 stands for engine displacement, though it's powered by a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder, not a 2.5-liter. You'd think the HS240 name would be more in harmony. The h, of course, denotes hybrid.

Lexus insists it's not a glorified Prius, the industry's mileage champ with its 50 mpg city rating from a 1.8-liter, 4-cylinder with battery pack. Rather it's a luxury sedan about 5 inches shorter than a Camry and about 9 inches longer than a Prius that gets a "mere" 35 mpg in the city while swathing five people in amenities for 700 miles before the need to refill the tank.

Sounds good until you consider the shortcomings that need be addressed at mid-cycle freshening, such as the vanilla design -- no sprinkles -- and the coupe-sloped profile that will tattoo the noggin if not careful.

Front- and rear-seat room is decent, but seat bottoms are too short for ample thigh support and side bolsters too slim to keep you wrapped tightly in corners.

Housing the battery pack within the rear seat sacrifices cabin room but mostly trunk space. You can fit luggage or the clubs, but that's all. Rear seatbacks don't lower to add cargo space, and there's no ski passthrough into the cabin.

The instrument stack in the center of the dash looks like an avalanche over what little there is of the center console, which holds the systems control handle, or maybe you say computer mouse. Jiggle the handle to call up the energy monitor on the large screen at the top of the dash to see when in battery or gas mode or both. There's push-button start, but reaching the button, near the top of the instrument stack, is a stretch.

There are three operating modes: EV for a little over a mile of travel in battery only; ECO, which limits the throttle to keep speed down and mileage up; and POWER, or lead-foot mode.

Unless in power mode, there's not much pop away from the light, obviously why Lexus avoided a 4-cylinder before this. Of course, 35 mpg in stop-and-go city driving while carrying five is more appealing to some than sprinting from the light.

Nice touches in the $3,900 technology package are heated/cooled seats, a finger-size shift lever in the instrument stack for the continuously variable automatic and a head-up display that provides a continuous speed reading in the lower windshield. The readout moves up or down but not sideways, so it's not always in the center of your vision. Another item for the "to do" list.

The tech package adds a system that beeps if you wander from your lane and helps steer you back there while cruise control is engaged.

Push a button and the dash-top screen splits to show what's on either side up-front -- vehicles, people, pets or kids -- when parking. But it takes time for eyes to adjust and brain to translate the activity on two screens.

In addition to the energy monitor, a smaller info center in the instrument panel shows when in gas or battery mode or both.

The HS250h is offered in regular ($34,200) and premium ($36,970) trim, the version tested. It adds such upgrades as power tilt and telescoping wheel, heated and cooled leather seats, 18-inch radials (17-inch on regular) and rain-sensing wipers to a list that includes all the power goodies -- seats, windows, mirrors and locks -- climate control, Bluetooth and USB/iPod connectivity.

With popular options such as audio and navi systems plus technology package, the HS250h sticker was north of $45,000, a hefty price for simply higher mileage and longer driving range.

Lexus expects to sell about 25,000 units in the first full year. Gas prices, no doubt, will dictate how close it comes to that.

Read Jim Mateja Sunday in Rides. Contact him at transportation@tribune.com.

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