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Lexus HS250h: Keep the lights off in the garage

Find me a person who thinks this luxury hybrid is beautiful and I'll find you someone who has a plaid La-Z-Boy in the family room.

October 30, 2009|DAN NEIL

If I had a hammer, I'd hammer in the morning, I'd hammer in the evening and all over the Lexus HS250h until I beat it into something that vaguely resembled a luxury car.

I'd start by chiseling off the Ford Fusion-like grille, then I'd go to town pounding some rakishness into the hood and then I'd ding and dent some character into the fuselage.

Anything. Just make the boring stop.

This is one of those instances that defy the notion that automotive styling is subjective. Find me a person who thinks this car is beautiful and I'll find you someone who has a plaid La-Z-Boy in the family room.

In most respects, this car makes sense to me. It makes sense for Lexus -- the luxury imprint for Toyota -- to offer a dedicated hybrid, which is to say, a vehicle that is not a hybrid version of a conventional vehicle, and to slot it in at the bottom of the price ladder ($34,200), between the IS and ES models. This is Lexus' mileage marquee player, with an EPA average of 35 miles per gallon. Well done. Bully.

It also makes sense to transplant the Camry hybrid's excellent powertrain -- a 2.4-liter, 147-horsepower Atkinson-cycle engine, continuously variable transmission, 141-hp traction motor, 244.8-volt battery, the whole kit -- into said car. We call that amortization.

It is likewise reasonable to roll in every fancy bit of electronic hardware available in the Lexus larder. After all, sparkly electroluminescent gizmos are a time-honored Lexus brand value. There's even an available system that monitors the driver's face to detect whether he or she is turned away from the road. If a frontal collision seems likely, the car will advise the driver to turn around and continue to scream normally.

Sensibly enough, Lexus wraps that all in the propofol tranquillity Lexus is known for. The glass is acoustically laminated; the engine sits on dynamic engine mounts that help null out transient vibration; every corner, crease and seam is wadded with soundproofing material like an Abbey Road studio.

I'm cool with all of that.

But it is madness -- sheer, biting-chicken-heads-off, barking lunacy -- to stick all that hard work and expertise into the sheet metal of the European-market Toyota Avensis, upon which the HS250h is based.

This narrow, graceless, cosmically unlovely economy car -- which is not sold in the U.S. because it fails the ugly-car clause of various trade agreements -- crushes any desire I might have to own an HS250h.

At this point Lexus designers will be foaming at the mouth. They'll argue that the Avensis and the HS250h don't share any sheet metal. Please, their mothers couldn't tell these cars apart. They'll also note they spent a zillion hours in the wind tunnel to optimize the HS' shape for aero efficiency as well as to tune out wind noise.

I can't hear you. The ugly is just so loud.

Here's why looks are important: Almost all cars are good, and many cars are great. The most middling entry-level sedan today has more performance, comfort and convenience than the most majestic luxury steamship of 20 years ago, and much more content than most drivers ever use. Honestly, how many times do you readjust the pedal height or set the dual-zone climate control to different temperatures?

The point is, the reward of owning a luxury car isn't found in the bleeping displays and ventilated seats. It's in the moment when the garage door goes up, and you experience the deep, neuronal pleasure of confronting something beautiful. That's luxury. That's why you write the big check.

Meanwhile, the aesthetically hamstrung HS250h is up against some serious competition, much of it built by Toyota itself.

On the one hand, there is the Toyota Prius, which can be decked out with many of the same tech amenities as the Lexus, and for less money too; gets about 50% better gas mileage; and is an established icon of the Whole Foods, MoveOn.org mind-set.

Then there's the Camry hybrid, which isn't as fancy but is a heck of a lot bigger and more practical than the HS250h. So Lexus has cocked a howitzer, taken aim at its foot and fired. Too bad. The HS250h is actually a pretty interesting car and downright compelling on the inside.

The dramatically sloped central console extends on a kind of free-standing pier between the front seats. Our fully loaded test car was equipped with the terrific Lexus Remote Touch controller (first seen in the RX450h), a kind of leather-lined computer mouse with haptic feedback that tugs and kicks back as the cursor scrolls along the screen. The seats are big and comfortable. The material quality is excellent. Lexus says about 30% of the interior plastics are derived from plant-based materials. According to Lexus, 85% of the HS250h is recyclable.

The sooner the better, I say.

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dan.neil@latimes.com

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

2010 Lexus HS250h

Base price: $34,200

Price, as tested: $38,000 (est.)

Powertrain: Two-mode hybrid; 2.4-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine; starter/generator motor, traction motor; planetary gearset; continuously variable transmission; front-wheel drive

Net system horsepower: 187 hp

Engine hp: 147 at 6,000 rpm

Engine torque: 138 pound-feet at 4,400 rpm

Electric motor hp: 141

Electric motor torque: 199 pound-feet

Battery: Nickel-metal hydride, 244.8 volts

Curb weight: 3,770 pounds

0-60 mph: 8.4 seconds

Wheelbase: 106.3 inches

Overall length: 184.8 inches

EPA fuel economy: 35 mpg city/34 mpg highway

Final thoughts: A great car trapped in a train wreck

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