2010 Lexus HS 250h

2010 Lexus HS 250h

We've just returned from driving the 2010 Lexus HS250h through the manicured suburbs of New York's Westchester County. We'll post our full impressions tomorrow, following up the first drive of the Lexus HS by our colleague Bengt Halvorson.

But at the end of the day, we're left just slightly scratching our heads, trying to decide quite what we think of the HS.

New category: dedicated luxury hybrid

On the one hand, it pioneers a new automotive category: the dedicated luxury hybrid, one that shares no body panels with a gasoline-only car. (A 2010 Toyota Prius is a dedicated hybrid; the 2010 Lexus RX450h, which looks just like the gasoline RX sport-utility, is not.)

Lexus says 60 percent of entry-luxury car buyers would have considered buying a hybrid if one were available. Now, one is.

"It's the perfect car for our era of downsized ambition," said our acerbic colleague Marty Padgett. "You can't have a high-end Lexus because of the economy and the price of oil, so here's a 'Lexus Prius' with leather and Bluetooth."

Lexus itself also says 54 percent of hybrid owners have a household income of more than $100,000. So hybrid owners have money, and they can buy higher-priced cars if they want to. In fact, the Toyota Prius hybrid is often a substitute for a luxury car already.

A different kind of Lexus?

On the other hand, the 2010 Lexus HS250h is a different kind of Lexus. It has many of the styling cues, but it's far less sleek than any other Lexus sedan. It has neither the uber-luxury of the limousine-like Lexus LS nor the sporty handling of the IS sports sedans.

And with its projected EPA combined rating of 35 miles per gallon (against 50 mpg for its 2010 Toyota Prius sibling), that luxury will cost you about 1 extra gallon of gasoline every 100 miles. A small price to pay, perhaps, especially since Lexus is only shooting for sales of 25,000 HSes in its first year.

So will the Lexus HS be the next logical step up for existing hybrid owners who want more luxe than the top-of-the-line 2010 Toyota Prius, which stickers at about $35,000? Will it successfully launch another new category? Lexus parent Toyota is good at that, we admit.

Or a non-existent niche?

Or might the HS suffer the same fate as another hybrid, now discontinued: the Honda Accord Hybrid? Following Honda's original, tiny Insight and successful Civic Hybrid, the Accord Hybrid pioneered a new category as well: the 'performance hybrid'.

Introduced for 2005, the Accord Hybrid had its electric motors tuned for acceleration rather than fuel economy. One notable review was titled, “Sips gas. Hauls ass.”

But by 2005, "hybrid" had come to mean "high fuel economy". And high-performance hybrids turned out to be a niche so small that few buyers cared. After adequate sales in 2005, Accord Hybrid numbers plunged in 2006 as additional hybrids entered the market. Honda gave up in June 2007 and canceled the car--bidding adieu to a category that hasn't been revived.

So we're truly torn. We're not sure whether we think the 2010 Lexus HS250h pioneers a brilliant new niche crying out to be filled, or is the answer to a question no one asked.

What do you think? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

2009 Detroit auto show

2009 Detroit auto show