High-Tech Lexus Hybrid Goes After the Young and Restless

Last Updated Jun 24, 2009 5:20 PM EDT

TARRYTOWN, NEW YORK--Lexus likes the concept of luxury hybrids so much that it now offers four of them. The fourth, with a tongue-twister of a name--HS 250h--was shown to the press today.

Lexus calls the HS 250h the world's first dedicated luxury hybrid, which means designed from the ground up. There are actually very few dedicated hybrids at all: The Prius and the new Honda Insight come to mind. Still, there's a lot of Toyota Prius and Camry Hybrid (mostly the latter) in the HS 250h, which is not a bad thing. Think of it as hybrid-over-easy, all the benefits of hybrid ownership without any of the sacrifices.

Driving it--which we were able to do--yielded a high-tech version of those Toyota cars, bristling with innovations from an exhaust heat recovery system and LED lighting to plant-based eco-plastic materials for upholstery and trunk panels. Someone called it "Windows friendly," and that's accurate. Want to play songs from a portable hard drive off the stereo head end? No problem with this Lexus.

The new Lexus, priced around $33,000, has a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder Atkinson-Cycle engine under the hood, and together with the electric motor it produces 187 horsepower (50 more than the Prius). That's quite enough to give it dramatically good acceleration--8.4 seconds to 60 mph. Despite this, it offers excellent fuel economy of 35 city, 34 highway--better, in fact, than the three-cylinder Smart car.

Lexus (which has sold almost 170,000 hybrids to date) says it has done its homework on this segment. And it expects to move 25,000 HS 250h cars in its first full year on the market. Did you know that 54 percent of hybrid owners have household incomes of more than $100,000, and that 16 percent of those owners already own a luxury vehicle?

Median age of the HS 250h buyer is expected to be 43. The target consumers are tech-oriented, according to Lexus, and "are not green activists, but believe in the importance of living a more energy-conscious lifestyle; people who believe their car makes a social statement but don't like the connotations of traditional status symbols."

The car can be driven in "power," "eco" and "EV" modes. "Eco" offers comfortable cruising, but "EV" is of limited utility--suitable only for short, show drives over flat terrain.

We drove the HS 250h in a ride-and-drive event that took a winding path around Kykuit, the Rockefeller estate at Pocantico Hills. Highlights of the tour included the stained-glass windows by Matisse and Chagall at the Rockefellers' Union Church and sheep grazing where once the mighty John D. was master of all he surveyed.