By Andrew Bornhop

Hiroyuki Koba, the Ducati-riding 47-year-old chief engineer of the Lexus HS 250h, likens himself to a conductor. And yes, this new Lexus is his symphony, an artful balance of several key elements (luxury, hybrid powertrain, advanced technology and ecological sensitivity) all directed to form a harmonious sedan. Hence, the HS name.

As some have suspected, the HS 250h is based on a version of the Toyota Prius' platform, even sharing its 106.3-in. wheelbase. But that's where the similarities end. The HS is a much bigger car, slotting nicely between the IS and ES in size. What's more, it shares no body parts with the Prius; it's 9.2 in. longer and 1.6 in. wider, plus it has an independent multilink rear suspension, quite unlike the torsion beam axle of the Toyota.

And the dissimilarities continue underhood, where the HS has a 147-bhp 2.4-liter 4-cylinder on duty, an Atkinson-cycle engine that teams seamlessly with an electric motor/generator and a continuously variable transmission to propel this Lexus to 60 mph in a respectable 8.4 seconds and to a limited top speed of 112 mph. Total system output of this hybrid powertrain, an advanced

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version of that found in the Camry Hybrid, is 187 hp. One key advancement is an exhaust heat recovery system that raises the temperature of the coolant quickly, saving fuel by reducing engine warm-up time and allowing the engine to shut off earlier, particularly in colder climates. A NiMH battery pack, the size of a smallish suitcase and weighing about 90 lb., resides between the rear seat and the trunk, which holds four sets of golf clubs.

As an example of what Lexus calls a "high-efficiency" hybrid (as opposed to the performance-oriented GS 450h whose hybrid V-6 powertrain makes the power of a V-8), the HS 250h is a mileage champ. On regular fuel, it gets EPA fuel economy of 35 mpg city/34 mpg highway/35

mpg combined. That's impressive for a luxurious 5-seat sedan, and chances are good you'll exceed those numbers if you use the driver-selectable Eco mode, which softens throttle response and cuts back on the air conditioning to improve economy. There's also a pure EV mode, which allows an HS with a good charge to drive for about 3 miles on the battery pack alone, at speeds up to 20 mph. Perfect for underground parking structures and the like, says Lexus.

In daily city driving, the HS gets the job done well, relaxed and amply powered in traffic. On hills the CVT powertrain can motorboat a bit under hard throttle, but on the whole the HS is a quiet and refined ride, thanks in part to triple-sealed doors and

»Remote-touch controller (below right) is like a computer mouse.

»Remote-touch controller (below right) is like a computer mouse.

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abundant sound-deadening. The only real noise is the whine of the regenerative braking, which can be a touch grabby.

From inside, the HS has a tall and narrow feel, and the excellent rear-seat room is enhanced by sculpted (and thin) front seatbacks. The overall quality of materials in the 10-airbag cabin looks good, perhaps not quite up to par with larger Lexi, and although the stock suspension is comfortable, the firmer tuning of the optional Touring package is a much better choice for those who like driving along with their environmental consciousness.

And speaking of being earth-friendly, the HS is more than just a fuel-efficient SULEV vehicle. It's also the first vehicle in the world to use ecological plastics for the interior; some 30 percent of its cabin and luggage area is covered with this plant-derived carbon-neutral material, and it looks and feels just like standard trim.

As a Lexus, the HS brims with cool new technology. Fully loaded models will have cameras galore, wide-angle ones front and rear (for those tight parking lots), plus ones to make sure the driver is not falling asleep or that the car is not drifting out of its lane. I didn't test the latter two systems (thankfully) but I did get to use the HS's new remote-touch controller, a mouse-like device on the protruding center console that will soon make its way onto all Lexus models with navigation. It's simple to use, and allows the driver to complete multiple tasks without digging too deeply into menus. And the voice commands really work. Last, all HS 250h models with nav will have Enform, a new system that, among other things, automatically notifies help in the event of a collision.

So, is the world ready for an eco-minded midsize near-luxury hybrid? Perhaps. Lots of Priuses do leave Toyota showrooms equipped with all the bells and whistles. Soon, though, with the August arrival of the approximately $40,000 HS 250h—what Lexus calls the "world's first dedicated luxury hybrid"—we'll learn for sure. ^

»ROADANDTRACK.COM/HS250

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