NEWPORT BEACH, CA – In a January appearance on “The Late Show” with David Letterman, Clint Eastwood, in talking about the problems of the Detroit Three auto makers, veers off on a tangent about the lack of sexy hybrid-electric vehicles in the market.

“One of the problems with hybrids and stuff is nobody ever made a sexy one,” Eastwood tells Letterman.

The audience applauds, perhaps suggesting many people would be inclined to buy a hybrid if it were attractive and exciting.

Unfortunately, the Lexus HS 250h is not that car.

While Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus brand designers have seriously kicked it up a notch in recent years, incorporating their taut but undulating L-Finesse theme on Lexus’ newer passenger sedans – the ES, GS, LS and excellent IS entry-luxury sport sedan – the HS, Lexus’ first dedicated HEV, is a fish out of water.

Although above average in driving dynamics and, most importantly, fuel consumption, the HEV lacks style, looking like a cross between the lower-priced Toyota Corolla and Ford Fusion.

This could present a problem to Lexus’ status-conscious consumers, who will have to pay somewhere north of $30,000 for the model (Lexus has yet to finalize pricing).

To create the HS, the first Lexus hybrid geared toward fuel economy rather than performance, engineers dipped into Toyota’s global parts bin, borrowing Toyota’s European Avensis platform, sized between the U.S. Corolla compact and Camry midsize cars.

The HS also has the gas engine of the U.S. Camry Hybrid (Toyota’s 147-hp 2.4L I-4, codename 2AZ-FE) and a version of the ’10 Prius’ continuously variable, shift-by-wire transmission.

The HS 250h boasts the same mileage-enhancing components as all newer Toyota hybrids, including exhaust-heat recovery technology. The system captures exhaust heat and uses it to raise the coolant temperature earlier, allowing the gas engine to shut down more often.

Common to other Toyota hybrids, two electric motors are employed, with the first acting as a starter-generator. The more powerful second motor drives the front wheels and can produce up to 140 hp.

Together with the hybrid-drive motor, total system output is 187 hp and 138 lb.-ft. (187 Nm), equal to that of the Camry Hybrid.

Although it lags the power of Lexus’ performance-oriented HEVs, the HS exhibits relatively quick acceleration merging onto the highway here in the tony Orange County suburbs of Los Angeles.

Lexus says the HS sprints from a standstill to 60 mph (96 km/h) in 8.4 seconds. Not too shabby.

Its electric power steering errs on the light side but stands up as one of the more competent EPS systems on the market.

’10 Lexus HS 250h
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 4-door sedan
Engine DOHC 2.4L 4-cyl. with aluminum head, block
Power (SAE net) 147 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 138 lb.-ft. (187 Nm) @ 4,400 rpm
Compression ratio 12.5:1
Bore x Stroke (mm) 88 x 96
Hybrid Series/parallel with 2 electric motors
Battery Nickel-metal hydride
Total system power 187 hp
Transmission Continuously variable
Wheelbase 106.3 ins. (270 cm)
Overall length 184.8 ins. (470 cm)
Overall width 70.3 ins. (179 cm)
Overall height 59.3 ins. (151 cm)
Curb weight 3,682 lbs. (1,670 kg)
Base price TBD
Fuel economy 35/34 city/hwy (6.7/6.9 L/100 km)
Competition BMW 3-Series, Mercedes C-Class, Infiniti G37, Cadillac CTS
Pros Cons
Segment-leading fuel mpg Gas still cheap
Above average acceleration EV mode doesn’t last long
Alluring interior look Exterior won’t win buyers

Lexus estimates the HS 250h will return 35 mpg (6.7 L/100 km) on average, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency methodology, running on regular unleaded fuel.

Ward’s exceeded the average twice, returning 39 mpg and 41 mpg (6.0-5.7 L/100 km) in mixed, lower speed routes. On the freeway, the average fell to 34.3 mpg (6.9 L/100 km).

Chief Engineer Hiro Koba says the HS 250h can travel on battery power, alone, for two or three miles (3.2-4.8 km), depending on the battery’s state of charge and the grade of the road.

A leg through the 2.2-mile (3.5-km) Back Bay conservation area, with a 15-mph (24-km/h) speed limit, boosted Ward’s fuel economy to 51 mpg (4.6 L/100 km) from 38 mpg (6.2 L/100 km) at the start.

Engineers used the Avensis base because of the car’s sport-oriented rear double-wishbone suspension, says Lexus General Manager Mark Templin.

The HS’ front MacPherson strut and rear double wishbone suspensions equate to the softer, more comfortable ride of the ES vs. the harder IS.

But given the pristine condition of Orange County roads, it is hard to predict ride comfort on some of Detroit’s crater-filled freeways, for example.

Inside, the HS carries over Lexus’ alluring new interior theme, first seen in the ’10 RX cross/utility vehicle, winner of a 2009 Ward’s Interior of the Year award.

Like the RX, the HS has matte, low-gloss finishes and sleek, user-friendly controls. The center stack protrudes into the cabin, as with the ’10 Prius, making it easier for drivers to reach buttons and knobs.

Also like the RX, the HS gets the new Remote Touch joystick, which controls navigation, audio, HVAC and vehicle information functions. The device is located at the base of the center stack, just forward of the cupholders. The Remote Touch knob is bathed in cool blue light, as is the entire cabin.

The HS’ seats are comfortable, with adequate support, although taller journalists complain the seat bottom could be deeper for better ergonomics.

Rear-seat comfort is average. Lexus thinned the front seatbacks, and carved out knee niches for more legroom. But headroom is tight, especially in the middle seating position.

The HS is available in one trim but will offer navigation, premium and technology option packages. The latter will include safety and technology features soon to debut in the ’10 Prius, such as lane-keep assist, dynamic radar cruise control and a head-up display.

The navigation package includes Lexus’ new concierge service, Lexus Enform. Debuting on the HS and rolling out to other Lexus models, Enform is able to summon help in an emergency as well as get directions to the nearest Italian restaurant via call-center attendants. It’s a handy feature but likely pricey.

Although mechanically impressive, the ho-hum exterior could take the HS 250 out of consideration for many luxury buyers. With gas reasonably priced and a cheaper-but-excellent new Prius out soon, Lexus’ goal to sell 25,000 units annually looks ambitious.