Marketing School and the Lexus HS250h Reviewed

lexus hybrid

Marketing 101: When it comes to auto racing, telling jokes, and launching a new product, there is one truism: Timing is everything.

Ladies and gentlemen, Lexus presents the HS250h.

The HS250h rolled into showrooms in fall 2009 and car buyers who love the Earth and luxury accoutrements like heated/cooled seats in equal measure, finally had a dedicated hybrid to call their very own.

Marketing 102: If an auto company becomes a national punchline because its cars won’t slow DOOOOWWWWNNNN, then it’s probably not the right time for delivering a new vehicle aimed at the same drivers currently stuck in recall hell at their local Toyota dealership.

The last five months were a glorious time to be luxuriously green, but all good things must come to an end. (For example, a sedan with sketchy brakes headed toward a brick wall.) Yes, sales of the HS250h are on hold until the kinks can be worked out, but it’s no biggie. There’s nothing to see here, keep moving. As Toyota president Aiko Toyoda said of the recall, “Quality is our lifeline for Toyota.”

Marketing 103: Never use the word lifeline when speaking of cars with the troubling habit of not reducing speed on Dead Man’s Curve.

I kid Toyota because they demand consumers make hard choices: “I’d rather not perish in a fiery crash, but I would save a ton on gas expenses while reducing our dependency on foreign oil”¦” But the truth is, I kind of liked the HS250h, and think it could play an important role in the yet-to-be-determined world of everyday hybrid driving.

As a part-time car reviewer, I’ve been behind the wheels of a number of hybrids and have generally felt better about the reasons to drive them than the actual driving experience itself.

Take the Prius, for example. Setting aside the holy-shit-this-hybrid-has-become-the-bus-in-Speed issue, it has bigger problems. They’re hideous. And in these here United States, they’re movement cars, huge in Santa Monica and Marin County and not so much everywhere else. Behavioral marketing expert Dr. Clotaire Rapaille goes so far as to say it’s sex that sells the Prius, not loyalty to Mother Earth. In a 2004 interview he told me,  “Right now the Prius will get you laid, just like when VW Beetles invaded college campuses in the ’60s.”

Only 1.6 million Priuses have been sold worldwide since 1997. (To put that in perspective, Ford sold 414,000 F-Series trucks in the recessionary year of 2009 alone.) It will always be a tiny fraction of car buyers who purchase what’s healthy over what tastes good, which is why the HS250h has a (rapidly diminishing) chance of making an explosion in the marketplace. Poor word choice, my bad.

lexus hybrid hs250h

The exterior of the HS250h isn’t dazzling – it’s more Camry than Lexus – but it’s no crime to be bland, at least not in comparison to the Prius’s metallic slug shell. At 24/35 mpg, the HS250h gas mileage is good for its class and the solid 4-cylinder 187hp engine has four drive-modes: Normal, Power, Eco and EV that helps increase efficiency and lower emissions. In five days of driving, the HS250h never had any of the hiccups or acceleration problems I’ve experienced in other hybrids like the Ford Escape. It has a kick to it and had no problem holding steady at 75 mph on the New Jersey Turnpike.

For the record, the brakes were a bit stiff, but not ineffective and I never noticed a sticky go-go pedal. Then again, I’m far from petite, so the G-forces of my driving boots may have overwhelmed the software issues.

Marketing 104: There’s no such thing as bad publicity…unless it includes the phrase “individual lawsuits claiming deaths or injuries caused by unwanted acceleration of vehicles.”

Where the HS250h shines is in all the creature comforts that could attract drivers who want to brag about going green over backyard Chardonnay without sacrificing a tool that lets drivers know of the location and length of upcoming traffic jams.

Starting at $34,000, the HS250h features the sex toy-sounding “Remote Touch,” which is basically a combo mouse/joystick that operates all the technology. It takes a minute to adjust to manipulating the cursor around the navigation screen, but it’s so intuitive to our techy lives that I quickly found it a vast improvement over the old button-centric dashboard. There are other fun design notes, like the gauge that keeps tabs on green driving, adjustable leather seats, key fob settings that automatically adjust to a driver’s preferred A/C setting, and an ability to upload GPS destinations from a home computer.

Personal maps, bioplastic material in the interior upholstery and satellite radio? It would be an honor to have the brakes go out. Besides, the HS250h has a collision system that automatically dials 911. It’s Mother Earth’s Indy car!

It’s hard to imagine that the HS250h will overcome this and be a player in the eco-conscious auto world, which is too bad because its luxury features could entice more mainstream suburban drivers and help get hybrids out of the “good-for-you” garage. It’s a fun ride and could have crashed the hybrid party. Whoops. Sorry.

Marketing 105: On second thought, timing isn’t everything. Braking is.