Schizophrenic, but in a Good Way
Sybil isn't the only one suffering from multiple personality disorder. The 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is schizophrenic, too. But unlike Sybil, whose 13 personalities could make people, uh, a bit uncomfortable, the all-new Highlander Hybrid's characters work together to put an attractive face on a hybrid sport-utility.
Such has not always been the case. The previous-generation Highlander Hybrid proved easy to drive around town and earned a respectable EPA rating of 26 mpg in the city, but the transition between gas and electric power was unpleasantly conspicuous compared to the Toyota Prius, and it was too easy to discern which powertrain personality was doing the talking.
After two years of behavioral therapy, Toyota has engineered a larger, more powerful 2008 Highlander Hybrid. And its complex personalities understand the value of working together, each system quietly supporting the other instead of proclaiming its gas or green individuality. The result is a seven-passenger midsize hybrid SUV that's more refined and functional than its predecessor and one that Toyota hopes will appeal to a broader range of eco-minded consumers, whether they're celery-colored or forest green.
Growing Up Green
Developed from the latest Camry chassis, the wheelbase of the all-wheel-drive Highlander Hybrid has grown 3 inches, while its overall length has increased by nearly 4 inches and its width by 3 inches. There are three rows of seats in the new Highlander and 145.4 cubic feet of passenger volume. At 4,508 pounds, the new SUV is 263 pounds heavier than the outgoing model, and our base-level Highlander Hybrid test car with optional 19-inch alloy wheels tipped the scales even further at 4,670 pounds.
To help manage the Highlander Hybrid's new heft, Toyota has upgraded its 3.3-liter V6 engine and refined its high-torque electric-drive motor generators to produce 270 cumulative horsepower, just a fraction up on the former combination's 268 hp. Even with such a small increase, the heavier SUV with its continuously variable transmission doesn't feel sluggish. Its 7.5-second acceleration to 60 mph is just three-tenths slower than the lighter 2007 model, and its quarter-mile of 15.6 seconds at 91.8 mph is nearly identical to the old Highlander's best run.
More Ute, Less Car
You'll notice the new Highlander drives a little more like an SUV and less like a car. The electronic power steering requires less effort and there's less feedback from the front tires as you're bending the Highlander through the curves. But the upside is that the low-effort steering keeps the new Highlander from feeling cumbersome in parking lots. Even with its increased dimensions, the Highlander has not become a Chevrolet Tahoe that will make moms fearful of crowded parking lots.
The Highlander's suspension has been revised to handle stylish 19-inch wheels, although the hybrid is restricted to a soft-riding package while the conventional gas-powered Highlander is available with a sport suspension. In this case, soft translates to comfortable, not overly spongy, so that's not a bad thing.
It performs in a way you'd expect. It goes through the slalom cones at 57.6 mph, just 1.3 mph slower than the 2007 model. And it comes to a halt from 60 mph in 127 feet; not too bad considering the extra weight. Around the skid pad, it does 0.76g.
Reading the Green Manual
If you bother to crack open the owner's manual, you'll find the Highlander Hybrid offers three ways for you to consciously maximize fuel economy. It's like a game for those who need a little focus in their lives.
The new Hybrid System Indicator consists of two automatic modes: "Normal" and "Acceleration." The display for the Normal mode shows three white LED dashes along the outer edge of the power meter, a gauge that replaces the gas-powered Highlander's tachometer. If you keep the needle of the power meter within the three white dashes of Normal mode at lower speeds, you're maintaining a constant level of speed that helps achieve maximum fuel economy. When you squeeze the gas pedal, the Hybrid System Indicator automatically switches to Acceleration mode, and then you need to keep the power meter needle within five white dashes to optimize the instant economy, carmakerspeak for the amount of fuel being used at that moment.
An EV switch on the center console allows the Highlander Hybrid to operate in electric mode for a limited distance at low speeds. We tried it repeatedly, but the system has specific requirements for temperature and level of battery charge, and we were hard-pressed to make it out of our parking garage before the EV mode had to deactivate in order to deliver increased acceleration. It's kind of fun, but it only matters to people who like to race golf carts.
A better bet for real-world driving is the new Econ drive mode. Econ activates a control program that restrains the powertrain's throttle response. Basically, it limits excessive acceleration and prevents you from jumping on the gas and using more fuel than you need. Switching into Econ after driving a few miles on the open freeway makes the Highlander feel like you're suddenly towing an elephant behind you, but if you start out in Econ or switch into it while in stop-and-go traffic, your fuel economy will noticeably increase and you'll never guess Dumbo is in your draft.
No More Personality Disorder
Most important to the character of the 2008 Highlander is the newfound harmony of the Highlander's hybrid system. Sybil's multiple personalities have come together in one giant group hug. The transition between electric and gas power is so seamless that it's easy to miss the handoff unless you're staring intently at the blue LED power meter and watching for the green or gas-guzzler personality to emerge. Just as important, the transition from electromagnetic regenerative braking to friction braking is also free of Sybil-style internal conflicts.
Our test vehicle crossed a couple of state lines and also carpooled kids around the suburbs during the 1,562 miles it was in our care. We averaged 23.8 mpg along the way, which compares to the 22.8 mpg we averaged during our test of the 2006 Highlander Hybrid.
This increase might not seem significant, but while using the EV and Econ modes whenever possible, we averaged 28.6 mpg over 193 miles without devaluing the driving experience. The Highlander Hybrid's tripmeter function records previous fuel-economy results and we had a great time trying to beat previous records, or at least it was more intellectually stimulating than singing along to Disney radio with our carpool of Brownie Girl Scouts.
Seven at One Blow
The gas-powered Highlander with its 270-hp 3.5-liter V6 comes in both front- and all-wheel-drive versions, and there are three trim levels: base, Sport and Limited. The Highlander Hybrid with its unique grille and wheels comes only in all-wheel drive, and just base and Limited trim models are available. Although pricing for the 2008 Highlander Hybrid has not yet been announced, we expect it to be about $6,200 more expensive than a comparable gas-powered version.
You'll be comfortable in the Highlander's roomy new seven-passenger interior, especially since the optional third-row seat is actually made for adults. The second-row seats recline and then also move fore and aft through 4.7 inches of travel. The second-row seat also incorporates a Center Stow seat, an occasional seat that can also be converted to a center console or even stowed away to create separate captain's chairs. It's amazingly light and easy to handle, and even a scrawny 6-year-old with arms like twigs was able to get the job done without whining for help.
Sybil Gets Manners, Becomes a Grown-Up
Growing families, put that Tahoe angst out of your mind. There's no reason to believe that your future lies in some hulking sport-utility based on a gas-swilling pickup truck. The Toyota Highlander was a crossover before crossovers were cool, and the Highlander Hybrid is close to being the ultimate crossover.
The 2008 Highlander Hybrid is an exceptionally versatile package that allows you to haul the kids and their lanky pals in happy comfort without experiencing unnecessary gas pump trauma. It's always quiet and hassle-free, just like the neighbor's kid (not your own), and its green-friendly powertrain takes some of the guilt out of the constant motorized errands that are part of raising a young family. It's comfortable and useful without being so precious that you're afraid of parking it somewhere a rogue supermarket cart might find you. You might even be able to cancel that summer math tutor if you can get the kids involved in running fuel-economy calculations.
Maybe things would have turned out differently for schizophrenic Sybil if her mother had driven a 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
How does it sound: C-
Our Highlander Hybrid was a preproduction model so it's quite possible that the stereo we listened to is not representative of the final product. We hope that's the case, because the sound quality, while acceptable, needs improvement.
The problem is that there's just too much bass — not sharp, precise bass, but rather a muddy, boomy low end that's overly dominant. The effect can be lessened to a degree by lowering the bass setting, but there is a point where it just sounds too thin and hollow. Add bass and the sound becomes muddy, and if you subtract bass it sounds thin.
Somewhere around "-3" on the bass setting it all sounds OK — not great, just OK.
Highs are clear and bright and midrange is nicely present. Even so, once the bass has been turned down enough to clear the sound, then the mids can lend a very hollow quality to the sound.
How does it work: B
The Highlander's redesigned interior means the head unit looks a little different, although functionally it works the same as previous Toyota audio systems. Most operations are easy to master and are fairly intuitive.
We still don't like the way CDs are changed when six discs are loaded up. Rather than just pressing the corresponding numbered button on the head unit, there are soft keys that double as radio station presets, and you use these to move up and down through the CD changer.
Special features: While even the base Hybrid has an auxiliary jack, features like a JBL stereo, Bluetooth, rear-seat DVD, subwoofer and satellite radio are all options that require stepping up to the pricier Limited.
Conclusion: Those looking for a rich sonic experience or lots of entertainment options will want to go with the Highlander Hybrid Limited. If budgetary restrictions are keeping you from opting for a Limited, get the Popular Plus package on the base vehicle. The audio system still doesn't sound stellar, but it does include a six-disc CD changer while even the base Highlander Hybrid has the expected aux jack. — Brian Moody, Road Test Editor
Senior Editor Ed Hellwig says:
At one point I had the Highlander Hybrid going 75 mph on electric power alone. At least that's what the computer on the dashboard said. Granted, I got to that speed on the back of the power of the 3.3-liter V6, but for a brief moment, on a slight downward slope in the middle of the desert, I was making good time using nothing but batteries.
And that's about as interesting as the Highlander Hybrid gets, in my book. Sure, it's bigger and faster and quieter than the previous model, but I expect all these things. Seeing the hybrid drivetrain making itself useful on the highway? That I didn't see coming.
For the rest of the trip from Phoenix to L.A., the Highlander deferred to the standard V6 to keep it up to speed. Final mileage figure? Just over 23 mpg. Not bad, but not great either. Our long-term V6-powered RAV4 has routinely averaged over 26 mpg on the highway, and although the RAV is nowhere near as big as this new Highlander, it's no econobox either.
To the Highlander's credit, less than spectacular mileage is the only thing I could find worth complaining about. It's as quiet as a Lexus, was plenty comfortable on my five-hour drive and has as much or more room inside than most midsize SUVs. The electric steering is too light for my tastes and the suspension has more give than I like, but that's what Highlander customers want, so that's what Toyota gives them.
Bigger, faster and more comfortable has been Toyota's goal this time around and the Highlander does all that. Just don't expect Prius-like mileage along the way.