Executive wheels: Lexus luxury—perfect, and improving

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2010 LEXUS HS 250h PREMIUM

The all-new hybrid displays the line’s expertise at luxury and innovation

The new 2010 Lexus HS 250h is the line’s first hybrid-only offering, and true to its reputation for innovation, the car was special. I can honestly say that this car is the reason we have luxury cars in the marketplace: while not everyone can afford one, Lexus here is a trendsetter for the type, which eventually filters down to cars the masses will enjoy.

But I am also worried, what with all the Toyota-bashing going on right now. Lexus is, of course, the luxury division of Toyota, and while there are no Lexi currently involved in the turmoil surround the floor mats and gas pedals on eight Toyota models, and the brakes on the 2010 Prius, one wonders. It is clear that Toyota overall shifted – or perhaps lost – its focus on quality and decided being the biggest car company in the world was the No. 1 goal. Quantity instead of quality. (Sounds downright American of them.) Anyway, the company made it to the top of the automotive heap, only to trash itself with quality defects and an extremely poor – unbelievably poor – response to the public, the US government and, indeed, to its own shareholders.

I am disappointed because I have been a Toyota champion over the years. I like their stuff, and I think Toyota, along with Honda and to a lesser degree Hyundai, are directly responsible for the rest of the auto world, particularly the American makes, to become a better industry with much better products. Heck, today even the bad cars are quite good.

The Lexus model I drove was the all-new HS 250h Premium (there’s also just the 250h), the first hybrid model in the Lexus line that isn’t a version of an existing model. To say the HS in beautiful is an understatement, inside and out. It has a very sleek look – instantly recognizable as a Lexus – and inside it is luxury personified. The driver’s console is interesting: it sweeps out of the dashboard like a table, with space underneath, a configuration that is at once a conversation piece for anyone riding along, and also quite attracxtive and a good use of space.

While I liked almost everything about this car, one of my favorite things was the gear shift. It’s a simple lever that you move sideways, then up or down for drive or reverse, but it doesn’t stay in that place; a mix of mechanical and electronic, I guess. It has a great feel. To put it back in park, you simply push the Park button. Couldn’t be easier, more practical or more beautiful. This five-passenger car is also quite roomy, with an amazing amount of leg room, head room and such all around, but especially in the back seat. The only room issue is the trunk: to accommodate the batteries needed for the hybrid system (which are obviously behind the rear seat), truck space is compromised.

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The car had everything, of course: navigation, premium sound, sunroof, leather, power everything, completely keyless operation (push button start). All Lexus. But it’s the driving that wowed me more.

The car features a 2.4-liter4-cylinder gasoline engine, and then, of course a front high-output, permanent-magnet electric drive motor. The combined horsepower is rated at 187, but it feels like more than that. It also features a continuously variable transmission that is so smooth it amazes; I have been unimpressed with CVT, until now, because in opther cars it seems to limit the acceleration off the line. Not so here. This car, because of the electric motor, has a great deal of start-up torque and it gets up and goes.

There’s so much technology here it’s frightening, but it works beautifully. Just for regular everyday driving, you hop in, power it up and go. It uses the electric engine until about 20mph, then the gas engine kicks in and shares the load. When the gas engine comes on there is a gentle shudder – no big deal, but you notice it. There are also a couple of driving modes you can select: EV will operate the car on just electric power up to 20 mph (in some cases below 20 mph, like when AC or heat is required the gas engine will come on, except in EV mode); then there’s ECO mode which monitors overall power consumption and adjusts the response to maximize fuel efficiency. Of course, there are several gauges and lights and reminders that let you know about power output, power consumption and regenerative power build; the ECO indicator light “rewards” you for efficient driving.

There’s a lot going on, and at first it seems intimidating, but you quickly get used to it and enjoy. The HS handles wonderfully, is a great city and highway car (even in the mountains), and is very easy to drive.

The base price on the HS 250h Premium is $36,970 (the plain 250h carries a MSRP of $34,200), but of course they added on a few things. $700 for a wide view backup monitor (it shows like TV on the LCD screen; way cool and safe too); $1,805 for LED headlamps, intelligent highbeams (they really work; on and off by themselves reacting to traffic), and headlamp washers; $1,580 for a Mark Levinson Audio System (15 speakers, all the bells and whistles, great sound), $2,125 for the Navigation system with voice commands and all of the XM Radio weather, traffic, sports and stocks add-ons (very easy to use), and $3,900 for a Tech Package that includes Lane Keep Assist (it nudges you back in your lane, gently), cruise control, park assist, and a pre-collision system with driver attention (fortunately, I didn’t need this, but I’m sure it’s great). Then a few other things like floor mats, remote engine start, cargo mats, etc.

The bottom line here is $48,985. I know that’s a lot of money, but to be honest it did not horrify me, and I have been horrified at car prices. This price actually seems like a deal for this car.

I loved the car. I also got to drive it in some interesting winter weather and I was surprised by how well it handled in snow and ice and amid all the crazies on the road. Unbelievably nice brakes, by the way, especially on a slippery road or street.

I would buy this car.

RATING: FOUR WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR).

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