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Toyota's Highlander SUV gets the hybrid treatment

April 01, 2005|by DAN LYONS/Motor Matters

For many people, a sport-utility vehicle has been a guilty pleasure. They're big, use a lot of gas, but we like the room, the four-wheel traction, the outdoorsy style. What if I told you that you could have what you want in a sport-utility vehicle, and spare yourself the guilt?

Highlander is a midsize SUV, introduced by Toyota in 2001. Based on the same platform as the Lexus RX 300, the Highlander was updated last year with a new 3.3-liter V-6 engine with a five-speed automatic transmission, standard vehicle stability and traction control systems. Now, Toyota has an eye-opening update for its segment sales leader. Highlander has added a gas/electric hybrid model to its lineup, powered by a 268-horsepower Hybrid Synergy Drive system. For SUV lovers, this is news you can use - the opportunity to drive a midsize SUV, without paying an oversize gas bill.

Available in June, the 2006 Highlander Hybrid will have a 3.3-liter V-6 gasoline engine in conjunction with a high-speed electric motor. Highlander is a full hybrid, meaning that it is capable of operating in electric-only or gas-only modes, as well as in combination. The peak, combined power output of the Synergy Drive System is 268 hp, and the performance results are impressive. Toyota estimates that the all-wheel-drive hybrid model can go from 0-to-60 mph in 7.3 seconds. That's quick for a large car, let alone a hybrid-powered, midsize SUV. While the EPA hasn't yet established gas mileage figures, estimates for the new Toyota are 30 miles per gallon city and 26 highway for the 4x4 model, and 32 mpg city and 27 highway for the 4x2 model. (However, experience suggests that real world mileage will be less than those numbers).

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Toyota's previous hybrid experience has been with its Prius sedans. Like Prius, driving the dual-fuel Highlander takes some getting used to. The gas motor cuts in and out as needed, and Highlander is frequently operating on strictly electric power, which is extremely quiet. Sitting at an intersection, it's quite common for the gas engine to shut off to save fuel. It may take a while to get used to the anxiety when that occurs, but it's a trip worth taking.

The Highlander Hybrid has surprising high performance. It is quick off the line with ample power to pass, and cruises effortlessly at highway speeds. Highlander is available with front or all-wheel drive. The latter has an automatic system, requiring no input from the driver. The amount of torque distributed to front and back wheels varies, according to driving conditions. The Highlander is equipped with a battery of onboard safety electronics: vehicle stability control, traction control, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist - all standard equipment.

Taken together, it's a formidable vehicle dynamics package. Does it mean that you can drive with impunity in a blizzard? No. The laws of physics still apply, and if you drive like a dimwit in snowy conditions, you can still end up in a ditch. However, the combined forces at work for you here mean that reasonable drivers will enjoy a high degree of peace of mind when they are faced with unreasonable driving conditions - and that is what most people want out of an SUV.

Highlander is not intended as an off-roader. Although dirt or rutted roads are manageable, it is not designed as a rock-climbing 4x4. Light towing is also within its capabilities, as the Hybrid is rated to pull 3,500 pounds.

Driveline aside, the Highlander is a well-sorted midsize SUV. It has room enough to seat 6-footers front and back, and the reclining back seats are adjustable fore and aft. The third-row seat is suitable for small kids.

Cargo capacity is an either/or proposition. With all three rows occupied by passengers, there is only 10.5 cubic feet left for cargo. However, the third-row seat folds flush with the load floor when not in use. Capacity then ranges from 39.7 to 80.6 cubic feet, depending on what you do with the second-row seats. The hatch door swings high and lift over height is low.

It's likely that Toyota will continue to expand the hybrid option to other models in the lineup over time. For now, Highlander Hybrid makes it possible to drive a midsize SUV while avoiding an oversize gasoline bill. Vehicles like Highlander may redefine how people see hybrid technology -

it's not just for economy cars anymore.

Copyright, Motor Matters, 2005

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