Thursday, April 29, 2010

Good combo: It's a Lexus, green and all-new

Sacramento, California – Say this for the 2010 Lexus HS 250h sedan: It’s not lacking for fanfare.

It’s an all-new offering for 2010, what Lexus mother company Toyota bills as “the world’s first hybrid-only luxury vehicle.” The movie Avatar wasn’t getting this kind of hype before its debut.

What’s the verdict?: I’d give it a solid B-plus, and my guess is that most Lexus lovers looking to save on gas will put it in the A-minus category.

It looks nice: Expected Lexus elegance with very little to make you feel it’s over the top. Nice aerodynamic roofline and just enough flash on the front end to make you feel a bit sporty out there. The standard, 17-inch aluminum alloys wheels also help along that line.

The five-passenger HS 250h is positioned between Lexus’ ES and IS offerings, and Motor Trend magazine described it as a “gussied-up (Toyota) Prius.” The magazine meant that as a bad thing, but frankly, I don’t have much of a problem wanting more than a Prius when I’m looking for green machinery.

Inside, the HS 250h satisfies those desires, and then some.

Standard features such as leather trim, a one-touch power moonroof and a whopping 10 air bags are certainly what you expect in a Lexus luxury ride. And yet the starting price on my tester was a reasonable $34,200. That’s the less-expensive of two trim levels; the Premium version of the HS 250h starts at around $37,500.

Fuel mileage is an alluring 35 miles per gallon in the city and 34 mpg on the highway. Oh, and it can take the economical 87-octane gasoline.

On the roll, the HS 250h is quiet and smooth, with virtually no road noise penetrating the cockpit. Steering is responsive, and the car took quick turns and corners with remarkably little body sway.

For me, takeoffs from a standing start were a little anemic, but then again, the selling point here is fuel savings, not drag strip racing. The 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine combines with an electric drive motor to put out a maximum 187 horsepower. And yes, you get silence when you press the vehicle’s “start” button. A lighted message centered behind the steering wheel lets you know the car is ready to roll.

For some reason, Lexus mounted the gear shifter just to the right of the steering wheel, and made that key piece of equipment tiny. The shifter knob is about the size of a Ping-Pong ball and positioned a little more than an inch above the dash.

I guess if you have an automatic continuously variable transmission surrounded by all that hybrid technology, you don’t need to go overboard on a shifter. However, I never quite got the rhythm of it, sometimes realizing I was still in “neutral” when I wanted to be in “drive.” I’m old-school enough to like a big shifter filling my right hand.

The shifter is not a deal-breaker, however, not by a longshot.

My guess is most buyers will love this new offering – a loaded up Prius (a popular car in its own right) with Lexus luxury at something resembling a Toyota Avalon price.

Pretty good combo, in my estimation.

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