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Can a Hybrid Be a Luxury Car?

Posted on December 30, 2009
Filed Under Lexus GS 450h, Lexus LS 600h, Lexus RX 400h, Lexus RX 450h | Leave a Comment

A fuel-efficient gas-electric hybrid luxury car: Not so long ago, that was an automotive oxymoron. Now, it’s a market segment.

The concept of selling high fuel efficiency as a high-end feature is gaining currency in the auto industry, thanks in part to regulatory pressure and to the buzz in certain circles around the Tesla electric roadster and other electric-powered cars.

Mainstream luxury brands are getting on the green bandwagon, betting that a growing slice of wealthy car buyers defines an “advanced” or “premium” car as more than just a potent engine. The latest arrival in the growing flock of hybrid luxury cars is the Lexus HS 250h. I took a weekend test drive in one to see how Toyota Motor Corp. is attacking the challenge of designing a high-technology car that is both ultra-frugal and indulgent at the same time.

It’s not an easy balance to strike.

Other mainstream luxury hybrids on sale in the U.S. are variations on existing models. That approach helps with costs, but it doesn’t yield eye-popping miles-per-gallon figures.

The $87,950 Mercedes-Benz S400 hybrid sedan, for example, is rated at 21 mpg in combined city and highway driving, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The 295-horsepower car uses a six-cylinder engine and a “mild hybrid” system to average three miles per gallon better, on the government’s tests, than the eight-cylinder, 382-horsepower Mercedes S550 sedan.

Then there’s the $43,000 Lexus RX450h, a crossover wagon that uses a more-robust hybrid system than the big Benz to achieve an average 29 mpg, compared to 20 mpg for the standard RX 350. Good, but still not enough if you want a very small carbon footprint.
Not Like Any Other Lexus

The HS 250h, however, isn’t like any other Lexus. Toyota says it isn’t just a rebadged Prius, either. Its body architecture is adapted from a European Toyota model called the Avensis. It has a 2.4-liter gasoline engine, larger than the Prius’s 1.8-liter motor. Combined with the boost from its batteries, the car is rated at 187 horsepower, compared to 134 horsepower for the Prius.

Lexus’ strategy for the HS 250h—which starts at $37,845—is to position it as the car of the future, available today. You can buy one with a cruise-control system that uses radar to slow your car when others get in the way, and an optional navigation system you can talk to.

“And on top of all that, it’s a hybrid,” says Brian Bolain, Lexus’ national manager of marketing and lifecycle strategy.

That said, the most impressive feature of the HS 250h’s list of specifications is its 35 miles per gallon EPA rating for combined city and highway driving.

I drove a Lexus HS 250h (and yes, all those H’s seem redundant) that I borrowed from Toyota from Washington, D.C., through eastern Pennsylvania and into the hilly country of New York state. From my first encounter with this car until I sent it back to the Lexus press fleet, I struggled with mixed feelings.

The HS 250h’s exterior styling plays it very safe, especially in contrast to the wedgy, angular profile of the new 2010 Prius. The interior is dominated by a prominent peninsula that pushes from the center of the dashboard into the space between the driver and passenger seats.

My test car had the optional navigation-system package, priced at $2,125, which also includes satellite radio. The center console was dominated by a joystick-style controller that operated the map functions. I never quite got the hang of the joystick, and a real buyer would expect—and should demand—a tutorial in how to get the most from the system.

The map did come in handy, however, when it alerted us to a huge traffic jam on our route home, and allowed us to bushwhack around the trouble. (Models without the navigation system don’t have the joystick.)

The Lexus HS has some features and behaviors that take a bit of getting used to if you aren’t already a hybrid driver. The car starts with the push of a large button on the dashboard, and can move out of a parking space on electric power. You might hear the gasoline engine come to life right away, or you might not.

The car has a continuously variable transmission, so there’s no gear shifting. “The transmission may feel different,” cautions the owner’s manual. The transmission does offer settings that will help slow the car when descending a steep hill.

The car’s performance in normal highway driving is conventional, except when you slow down and brake. That’s when I heard the whirring and whooshing sounds associated with the car’s technology, which captures braking energy and uses it to recharge the battery pack. Most luxury cars strive for silence. The Lexus HS makes noises.

My test car also had a $3,900 “technology” package that included a feature I used a lot during my trip: a radar-enabled cruise-control system that allowed me to set a speed, and then turn over to the car the chore of adjusting speed to the traffic. If I got stuck behind a slowpoke, the Lexus slowed down to prevent me from tailgating.

The Lexus HS 250h is a pleasant cruiser on freeways, but it’s not much fun on twisting, hilly roads. The car labored up steep grades in the hilly country around the Delaware River in Pennsylvania and New York. It’s not a cornering machine.

We traveled relatively light—a good thing, because thanks to the battery pack, the Lexus HS has just 12.1 cubic feet of trunk space, compared to 14.7 cubic feet for the Lexus ES 350 sedan and 13 cubic feet for the Lexus IS sedan.

The Lexus HS did deliver on mileage. I averaged 34.8 miles per gallon over 293 miles of driving, and boosted my mileage close to 40 mpg during stretches of the drive, according to the trip computer.
A Steep Sticker Price

The question some prospective Lexus HS buyers may ask is this: If you want a high-mileage hybrid, why buy a car that isn’t as fuel-efficient as a Toyota Prius, and costs $14,000 to $15,000 more? My loaded test car had a sticker price of $44,967, although most HS 250h cars will go out the door for under $40,000, Mr. Bolain says. The Prius starts at $23,370 and gets 50 mpg in city and highway driving.

Gas-electric hybrids account for just under 2% of the total car market, and luxury-brand hybrids are a sliver of that. The Lexus HS offers more of what environmentally conscious consumers want from an advanced-technology vehicle, and Mr. Bolain says there will likely be more Lexus models that offer the HS 250h’s brand of technology.

But more than once while winding up hill and down dale in the Lexus HS, I wished I had one of those peppy, high-mileage four-cylinder diesel BMWs or Audis that Europeans get, and we don’t. Does that make me a bad guy?

SOURCE: Wall Street Journal

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