Brian Moody, Road Test Editor
The Toyota Highlander Hybrid is the car that will make hybrids as common as a GE lightbulb.
Sure, the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Toyota Prius have furthered the "no plugs please" hybrid cause to the point where they are somewhat commonplace in locales like California and New York. But the Highlander will put hybrid technology into the hands of Joe and Jane Average who simply don't have the luxury of putting high-minded ideals before daily practicality.
This alternative Highlander is the first seven-passenger hybrid vehicle. Its inoffensive exterior styling, seating for seven and available four-wheel drive make it a no-brainer when shopping for a kinder, gentler SUV.
Toyota has built the Highlander so that the "conserving resources" aspect intentionally plays second banana to more important features like extra power and family-friendly reconfigurable seating. Does the Hybrid Highlander get better fuel economy than your average V6-powered SUV? Sure, it gets about 30 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving.
But a stint behind the wheel reveals that no one will be struck dumb by the engine's fuel-sipping ways and most will be immediately impressed with its 268 horsepower. By comparison that's nearly 40 more ponies than a standard V6-powered Highlander. "Ah ha!" you're saying, "Now I might be willing to spend the extra money on a hybrid." We agree.
The Hybrid Highlander's acceleration is indeed impressive. The instant response of the electric motors moves the midsize SUV forward with sports carlike authority. The hybrid power plant works in a seamless manner, but there is a noticeable amount of engine noise at higher rpm. It's not intrusive, but more than we would expect from a Toyota.
We have enjoyed the light and somewhat "tossable" nature of previous Highlanders. By contrast, the hybrid version feels a little heavy and cumbersome around tight turns. It's obvious Toyota engineers tried to compensate for the added weight of the hybrid system with a stiffer suspension, but all the engineering work is detectable from the driver seat.
The Highlander Hybrid is offered in two- or four-wheel-drive variants. But don't think of the four-wheel-drive version as a serious rock crawler. Even Toyota says this hybrid SUV is no off-road vehicle. It's more accurate to think of the Highlander Hybrid as an all-wheel-drive wagon. Toyota calls the system 4WDi. It is an on-demand system that improves traction on wet and dry pavement and is capable of regenerating power from all four wheels. The system is unique in that it uses a rear-mounted motor/generator that is activated when wheel slip is detected.
There are only two trim levels of the Highlander Hybrid — standard and Limited. The standard model offers options like foglights, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, JBL stereo and a rear spoiler. A touchscreen DVD navigation system is an option only on the Limited version and when so equipped, you'll be treated to a power-flow screen similar to the Prius.
Other hybrid-only features include an extra opening in the front bumper to allow for more cooling, LED taillights and brake lights that last longer and use less power. There's also a chrome license plate frame (we swear, they specifically mentioned this) and unique 17-inch alloy wheels. Still, don't go shopping for a Highlander Hybrid if style is your main goal — the difference between the normal Highlander and the hybrid version is kinda like the difference between Vanilla and French Vanilla ice cream.
We could go on and on about all the advanced technology used in the new Toyota Highlander Hybrid but really, too much shop talk about kilowatts, jigawatts, planetary gears and oil-cooled magnets runs contrary to this car's simple intent. Plus, that kind of information is like learning how to multiply fractions in 8th period math class on a warm Friday in April; none of it will stick.
This car is all about putting planet-saving, fuel-sipping technology in a useful and affordable package. On that count, the Highlander Hybrid is successful. Thanks, in part, to its unremarkable styling and interior versatility, this hybrid could move the family car and the average car buyer well into the 21st century as painlessly as possible.
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