This has been a big year for hybrid vehicles. As American drivers come to grips with issues of carbon emissions and energy use, hybrid-electric cars have definitely moved into the mainstream, with several models making their debuts in 2009, adding to the many that were already on the market.
Toyota is arguably ahead of the game in hybrid offerings, with more models than anyone else. Between Toyota-branded vehicles (Prius, Camry, Highlander) and those that wear the badge of their upscale Lexus division (RX450h, GS450h, LS600h), they pretty much lead the way in hybrid choices. The company has essentially said that before long, pretty much every vehicle they build will be offered in hybrid form.
Lexus recently took the wraps of their newest hybrid, the HS250h. But unlike their other hybrid models that stand alongside non-hybrid versions, the new HS will be sold only as a hybrid, much the same way there is no non-hybrid Toyota Prius. Lexus felt it was about time they offered an entry-level hybrid to slot below their other models in the pricing spectrum.
The strategy is multi-pronged. First off, the overall strategy of the Lexus brand is to give Toyota customers an upscale choice when they’ve moved out of the Toyota demographic, rather than watch them move to another brand of car. So although the new Toyota Prius can be loaded up with lots of high-tech luxury features, it’s still a Prius. This new Lexus model offers a step up into luxury territory, but staying in the pure-hybrid class.
The HS250h will slot above the Prius in the hybrid world (and well below the GS450h, which is a sport-luxury sedan), and between the ES and IS models within the Lexus line. No prices have been officially announced, but since the Prius can now top out at about $32,00 fully-loaded, I’m going to make an educated guess that the HS will start at about $35,000 before option packages.
And option packages are a hallmark of this new Lexus, with lots of new technology to make life behind the wheel easier and a little more fun. The new navigation system is the latest to offer something called Remote Touch, which lets you scroll across the various menu screens via a mouse that your palm rests on, and which provides positive feedback through your hand as the cursor moves onto the different icons. This allows you to keep more of your vision toward the road.
Speaking of vision, another neat option is the Heads-Up Display, which beams basic information into the driver’s field of view onto the windshield. The effect is that a small digital display appears to be floating out ahead of the car, right where your eyes would be focused anyway. Vehicle speed is shown in digits, with additional information like radio station selection right below it.
And if you’ve never been really confident in your parking ability, the HS250h comes to the rescue here as well. Not only is there a camera in the rear (which has become commonplace in most Lexus models) but also one in front. The front camera works at speeds below six miles per hour, and is great at assisting in parallel parking or just pulling into that space at the shopping mall.
While the various technologies can seem a bit overwhelming, the underlying essence of this car is that it’s a hybrid. Which means it combines an efficient four-cylinder engine (a first for a Lexus) with a pair of electric motors powered by an on-board battery pack that recharges automatically while the car is underway. When the engine isn’t needed, it shuts off and lets electric power take over at low speeds or when stopped.
And like the new Prius, this Lexus hybrid has a driver-selectable mode system. Beyond the default mode, there’s also one called Power (which changes the curve of the power system for more “oomph” off the line), and another called Eco which makes the car the most efficient it can be. Finally, a button labeled “EV” lets the car move silently along on electric power only, provided you’re not going too fast and the battery is in the proper state of charge.
The HS250h has lots of green technology in it beyond the hybrid power system. For example, plant-based plastics are used extensively where possible, saving petro-leum that would otherwise be consumed to make conventional plastics. There’s also special glass that cuts UV rays, meaning the air conditioner doesn’t have to work as hard. And about 70% of the car’s parts are recyclable once its life is over.
Just like the sticker price, the official mileage estimates haven’t been posted yet, but Lexus is estimating that combined fuel economy will be about 35 miles per gallon. Considering how much luxury and comfort this four-door sedan is packing, that’s pretty good.
Look for the HS250h to begin arriving in Lexus showrooms toward the end of August. Just don’t bother looking for the non-hybrid version…as there isn’t going to be one.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz @ pacbell.net.