What's New for 2008
Toyota has completely redesigned the Highlander Hybrid for 2008. Although this hybrid crossover SUV is considerably larger than its predecessor, its gas mileage is just as good.
Unlike smaller hybrid cars that offer readily apparent fuel economy benefits, the case for hybrid sport-utility vehicles is less clear-cut. On one hand, they promote wider acceptance of hybrid technology by virtue of their family-friendly packaging. As detractors are quick to point out, though, some hybrid SUVs aren't radically more fuel-efficient than their non-hybrid counterparts -- yielding benefits of the feel-good variety rather than measurable mileage gains. However, the improvements on the redesigned 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid are undeniable. In addition to being a larger, more flexible family vehicle than the original Highlander Hybrid, judged by the EPA's revised rating system, it's no less frugal with fuel.
If you ever read up on the previous Toyota Highlander Hybrid, the drivetrain components of the new version will seem familiar. The main power source is a 3.3-liter gasoline V6 engine, which is rated at 208 horsepower in this application. With the propulsion assistance of two electric motors, one in front and one in rear, the '08 Highlander Hybrid produces a cumulative 270 hp. A third electric motor functions as a generator and engine starter. As in the past, Toyota's hybrid SUV has what the company calls an "electronically controlled continuously variable transmission." This is not a CVT in the traditional sense and is instead a simplified power-split device that coordinates the efforts of the various power sources.
Given the presence of the rear-mounted electric motor, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid is technically a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Most of the time, though, it functions in front-drive mode; the electric motor engages the rear wheels only when extra traction or torque is needed. Bear in mind that this setup differs significantly from the 4WD/all-wheel-drive system on the regular Highlander: There's no center differential and the V6 engine never provides power to the rear wheels. The upshot is that buyers shopping for a serious snow vehicle may not find the hybrid Highlander robust enough to meet their needs.
For consumers living in milder climates, the 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid should prove quite practical. Its available third-row seat is roomy enough for adults in a pinch, and easy-folding second-row seats make it a cinch for 6-year-olds to seat themselves without help. Alternatively, they can just walk through the center aisle, as the 40/20/40 second-row bench has a "Center Stow" feature that allows you to remove and stow the center "20" section, leaving a pair of captain's chairs just like in a minivan.
Although larger families will still prefer the added space of a real minivan or roomier crossover SUVs like the GMC Acadia and Mazda CX-9, Toyota's Highlander Hybrid should have considerable appeal for environmentally minded buyers. Indeed, with EPA estimates of 27 mpg city/25 mpg highway, this is the most fuel-efficient seven-passenger vehicle on sale for 2008.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
A midsize crossover SUV, the 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid comes in base and Limited trim levels. Base models have seating for five and are equipped with 17-inch alloy wheels, an eight-way manually adjustable driver seat, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, air-conditioning, an MP3/WMA-capable CD stereo with an auxiliary audio jack, full power accessories, wood-grain trim and a multifunction center display you can use to track fuel economy and monitor the back-up camera. Highlander Hybrid Limited models add a third-row seat, resulting in seven-passenger capacity. Additional equipment on the Limited includes 19-inch wheels, a power rear liftgate, a power driver seat, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and a six-disc in-dash CD changer.
Options on both trims include dual-zone automatic climate control for the front seat and a choice of manual or automatic climate control for the rear seats. A third-row seat is available on the base model, while the Limited is further eligible for a sunroof, leather upholstery, front seat heaters, an upgraded JBL sound system (with Bluetooth included), a rear DVD player and a navigation system.
Powertrains and Performance
Toyota's Highlander Hybrid uses a 208-hp 3.3-liter V6 engine in combination with three electric motors. One electric motor functions as a starter-generator, starting the gas engine and recharging the SUV's nickel metal hydride battery pack, while the others concentrate on propulsion (but also work as generators during braking). Combined output is 270 hp, and with separate electric motors driving the front and rear wheels, the Highlander Hybrid is effectively a four-wheel-drive vehicle. A simplified CVT governs the contributions of the various power sources.
During instrumented testing, a 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid accelerated to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds, which is fairly quick for a seven-passenger midsize SUV. Because the Highlander Hybrid makes greater use of electric propulsion at low speeds, its city mileage rating (27 mpg) is better than its highway figure (25 mpg).
Every 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is equipped with antilock disc brakes, stability control, front-seat side airbags, three-row side curtain airbags and a driver's knee airbag. In addition, a back-up camera is standard across the board.
In National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash testing, the Highlander earned a full five stars for driver protection in frontal impacts and four stars for the front passenger. In side-impact tests, it earned five stars for both front and rear occupants. In frontal-offset crash testing conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Toyota's midsize crossover earned the top rating of "Good."
Interior Design and Special Features
Thanks to its longer wheelbase and wider track, the 2008 Highlander Hybrid is much roomier than the first-generation model, and larger and taller adults will feel the difference immediately. Build and materials quality remains high, and the ergonomics are excellent.
All Highlander Hybrids have a 40/20/40-split second-row bench with both recline and fore/aft adjustment, as well as the nifty Center Stow feature, which allows you to remove and stow the middle section, leaving an open center aisle. The third-row seat folds easily into the floor, but its non-split design limits your options when you have a mix of children and cargo to transport. Like the regular Highlander, the Hybrid has just over 10 cubic feet of cargo space behind its third-row seat and 42.3 cubes behind the second row. With all rear seats folded, the Highlander Hybrid offers 94 cubic feet -- just 1 cubic foot less than the regular version.
Although it feels noticeably larger than the old model, the 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is still pleasant to drive as midsize crossover SUVs go. Soft suspension tuning makes for a comfortable ride quality (even with the 19-inch wheels), and handling is capable, though not sporting. The electric power steering is low on feedback, but it allows Toyota's hybrid SUV to slither through parking lots with ease. And with both a gasoline V6 and a pair of electric motors working on your behalf, acceleration is brisk.
For those more interested in economy than performance, Toyota has equipped the '08 Highlander Hybrid with both "EV" and "Econ" driving modes. In its EV setting, the vehicle functions solely on electric power, though naturally this works only at very low speeds and for very limited distances. More useful is the Econ mode, which restrains throttle response for the benefit of fuel economy: Switch it on in stop-and-go traffic and you'll never miss the extra power.