Pros: Impressive fuel economy, upscale cabin, quiet ride.
Cons: Mediocre crash-test scores, the far cheaper Camry Hybrid is more powerful and more efficient.
The 2012 Lexus HS 250h promises the fuel economy of a hybrid and the opulence of a true luxury sedan, but does it deliver? The answer really comes down to what you think of the HS 250h's interior. After all, the HS's platform is shared with the overseas Toyota Avensis, a ho-hum mainstream sedan. And under the hood, the HS has simply borrowed its hybrid power plant from the previous-generation Toyota Camry Hybrid.
So let's talk more about that interior. In a word, it's fancy. The sleek, high-tech dashboard is trimmed with rich-feeling materials, and the gauges have Lexus's trademark electroluminescent illumination. The standard leather upholstery is nice. Nicer still is the optional semi-aniline perforated leather. Even the back seat is a winner, combining well-bolstered contours with surprisingly generous passenger space. And as expected in a Lexus, road and wind noise are kept to a minimum.
But let's go back to that Camry Hybrid for a second. There's a brand-new one for 2012, you see, and it makes more power than the HS 250h while using less fuel. That's right: the Toyota's got the latest hardware, while the Lexus is stuck with yesterday's news.
Nonetheless, the HS remains a competitive product due to its premium pedigree. Lexus has more or less cornered the market on upscale hybrids, and the 2012 Lexus HS 250h's combination of luxury and fuel-efficiency makes it hard to beat if your heart's set on that shiny Lexus badge.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 Lexus HS 250h comes in two trim levels: base and Premium.
Standard features on the base model include 17-inch alloy wheels, a sunroof, leather upholstery, power front seats (10-way driver and eight-way passenger), electroluminescent gauges with a hybrid status monitor, a trip computer, a manual tilt-telescopic steering column, dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth and a 10-speaker audio system with iPod connectivity and a USB port.
The Premium trim adds 18-inch alloys, rain-sensing wipers, a power tilt-telescopic steering wheel, semi-aniline perforated leather upholstery, heated and cooled front seats with the addition of passenger lumbar support, woodgrain interior trim and driver memory functions.
Some of the Premium's features are extra-cost options on the base model. Optional on both trims is a Navigation package that contributes a hard-drive-based navigation system with an 8-inch display, an available rearview camera and voice-recognition software, as well as the Lexus Enform telematics suite with Safety Connect (see "Technology," below). The Premium has some exclusive options, including a front-view (grille-mounted) camera, parking sensors, adaptive cruise control, a head-up display, adaptive headlights with LED low-beams and a 15-speaker, 330-watt Mark Levinson audio system.
All thoughts of the HS's plebeian Toyota relatives are temporarily banished when you settle into the supportive driver's seat for the first time. This is undeniably a luxurious cabin, from the materials quality (high) to the overall dashboard design (sleekly upscale). The crisp electroluminescent gauges and optional power tilt-telescopic steering wheel only add to the effect. Moreover, unlike the cheaper CT 200h hatchback, the HS 250h gives the passenger a standard power seat, with available adjustable lumbar.
Another CT-trumping feature is the back seat, which can easily accommodate two full-grown adults. The HS may look compact on the outside, but its rear compartment is closer to midsize.
Trunk space is decidedly compact, however, at 12.1 cubic feet. You can still haul things with that kind of space, but it's fair to say that most sedans at this price point let you haul more.
The concept of a luxury hybrid conjures up images of spaceship-like technology, and for the most part, the HS 250h doesn't disappoint. In addition to the expected plethora of hybrid-specific gauges and readouts, the HS boasts standard iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity, a crucial tech trifecta for gadget gurus. Then there's the available hard-drive-based navigation system, which operates via Lexus's unusual mouse-like "Remote Touch" controller and features a slick retractable eight-inch display screen atop the dashboard. We'd prefer to see more sophisticated graphics on that screen, but the system's functionality is hard to criticize.
HS models with the Navigation package also get the Enform system with Safety Connect. Enform lets you plan trips from home using a Lexus-exclusive online search called eDestination, or leverage your smartphone for this purpose with the Enform mobile app. Destination Assist provides live navigation assistance from Lexus's 24-hour response center. Both features are facilitated by direct communication with the CT's navigation system. Safety Connect uses the same 24-hour response center to get you the help you need if the unspeakable occurs.
Note that Toyota's Entune system, which uses smartphone data connections to integrate mobile apps like Pandora into the driving experience, isn't available in any Lexus for the 2012 model year.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The front-wheel-drive HS 250h is motivated by a 2.4-liter inline-4 that's teamed up with an electric motor and a nickel metal hydride battery pack. Total system power is 187 horsepower. This is the same system that powered the previous-generation Camry Hybrid, and it's a good one. Acceleration is unusually brisk by hybrid standards, and while the continuously variable automatic (CVT) likes to keep the engine revving high, the 2.4-liter's noises are reasonably refined.
Fuel economy is EPA-rated at an outstanding 35 mpg city/34 mpg highway. Well, outstanding if you forget that the new Camry Hybrid gets up to 43/39 mpg.
The 2012 Lexus HS 250h comes with standard stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes and eight airbags (front, front side, front knee and full-length side-curtain).
The government has not crash-tested the HS as of this writing, but the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the HS a mixed review. For frontal-offset and side impacts, the HS received highest rating of "Good," but it was only "Acceptable" (second-highest) in roof-strength testing and "Marginal" (second-lowest) for rear impacts.
Despite its humble Avensis underpinnings, the HS 250h manages to cruise like a Lexus. It's remarkably quiet at speed, while potholes and the like generally register only as muted thumps. But that's par for the course when there's an "L" on the grille. What's unexpected is the HS's non-terrible handling skills. Lexus's typically intrusive stability control system intervenes before there's real fun to be had, but still, the HS feels rather taut and athletic for an efficiency-obsessed hybrid. It's a pleasant car to drive.
Other Cars to Consider
Toyota Camry Hybrid - Redesigned for 2012, the current Camry Hybrid features a larger 2.5-liter gas engine and an improved total system output of 200 horsepower. More importantly, it gets better fuel economy now, and you can get a loaded-to-the-gills Camry Hybrid for less than a base HS 250h.
Lexus CT 200h - Noticing a theme here? The HS doesn't have much external competition if a reasonably affordable hybrid luxury car is what you're after. The CT is worth a look because it's sportier than the HS (faint praise, we admit), and cheaper to boot. Alas, it's also significantly slower and less accommodating for rear passengers.
Chevrolet Volt - Apples to oranges? Maybe, but if you're going to spend $40,000 on a hybrid, why not get a plug-in model that can function as a true electric car? The Volt operates solely on electric power as long as there's juice in the batteries, but it's still got gas in the tank in case you run out of voltage. With tax credits, it might even be cheaper than that HS you're eyeballing.
We'd like to keep the HS's price as low as possible, but who are we kidding? A luxury hybrid should have a navigation system, especially when it comes with something as cool as the Remote Touch mouse. We'd aim for a base HS with the Navigation package.