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Hybrid power peps up meek Highlander

February 19, 2005|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

 Take one seven-passenger Highlander, add Toyota's electric propulsion assist and the resulting Hybrid version begins acting as if it's a full-blown economy car. The powerplant combo also turns this pussycat of a people mover into a real tiger.

When gasoline/electric power systems were introduced a few years ago, they focused on stretching a gallon of regular unleaded as far as it could go. And while they achieved some impressive consumption numbers, compact models such as the Honda Insight and first-generation Toyota Prius struggled to match the hustle of their strictly gasoline-burning peers.

With the introduction of the Honda Accord Hybrid and this summer's arrival of the Highlander Hybrid, buyers willing to pay extra for cleaner tailpipe emissions and fewer pit stops will also be treated to improved performance. Fuel economy is still not proving to be a big motivator to jump on the hybrid-technology bandwagon, especially considering the initial expense for such vehicles.

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Power, however, has always been a motivator to spend more on a vehicle. In this light, improved fuel economy can be considered a side benefit. However, this new Highlander offers the best of all worlds: you get a decent-sized sport-utility vehicle with more horsepower than any other model in the lineup and the fuel economy of a four-cylinder compact.

In these terms, the extra premium for the Hybrid is a no-brainer. The Camry-based Highlander Hybrid will be Toyota's first such application in a sport-utility vehicle and will be preceded by the spring-2005 launch of the similarly powered Lexus (Toyota's premium brand) RX 400h sport-ute.

Where did the extra power come from? Instead of downsizing the internal-combustion component as was done with the Prius, the Highlander Hybrid keeps its optional 3.3-liter V-6 used in the rest of the line. However, the Hybrid's version has been specifically modified to work in tandem with an electric motor that develops significantly more power that the Prius's motor.

The Highlander Hybrid's engines will be connected to a continuously variable transmission that, instead of providing four or five forward gears, offers near infinite gear adjustment to keep the gas engine in its ideal rev range. Collectively, the powerplants give the Hybrid around 270 horsepower (a final figure has not yet been released), at least 30 more than a regular V-6 Highlander.

In addition, the Hybrid achieves a combined city/highway rating of better than 28 mpg, bringing it within range of the typical compact car. With a full tank, the expected cruising range should be about 600 miles. Even better mileage should be achieved in city driving.

That's because the Highlander's gas-sipping design really shows its stuff at idle and in low-speed stop-and-go traffic when the electric motor does most of the work. The entire process is monitored by a multi-function display on the instrument panel that graphically shows the status of the gas and electric engines, battery status and real-time and average fuel economy.

A single electric motor is integrated into front-wheel-drive Hybrids. However, selecting all-wheel-drive adds a second 50-kilowatt electric motor mounted close to the rear axle that keeps the back wheels in motion, negating the need for a driveshaft.

As with other dual-power-source vehicles, there is no need to recharge the batteries as you would a golf cart or other electric-only automobile. Keeping them full is the responsibility of a regenerative braking system that harnesses deceleration energy and sends it to the batteries.

The Highlander Hybrid's impressive content list includes what Toyota calls its Vehicle Dynamic Integrated Management, essentially a faster responding stability-control system that senses when the vehicle begins to lose grip or its "line" when cornering; the system applies the brakes and throttle to correct the problem.

In fact, the Hybrid will be so well equipped that the only add-ons are a power moonroof, heated front seats, premium audio system and side-impact and side-curtain air bags.

Other than some badges, the only exterior clues to indicate you're piloting a Hybrid will be a unique grille, bumper and headlamps, quicker-responding light-emitting-diode (LED) taillamps and 17-inch wheels.

Highlander Hybrid pricing will be announced closer to its initial public showing, but expect about a $3,000 bulge over and above a $32,000 Highlander Limited, bringing base price for this powerful eco-ute to around $35,000.

That's a fair price for this multi-purpose wagon that will go farther, faster and greener than any of its contemporaries.

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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