2007 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Review


PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2007 Toyota Highlander Hybrid (photo by Rex Roy)

SEE ALSO: Highlander Spec in Toyota Buyers Guide

Experiencing The Hy-Life — 2007 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Another “Short Shift”* Review By Rex Roy
Freelance Automotive Journalist For Hire

Mark my words; you’re only seeing the tip of the hybrid iceberg. These days there are only a handful hybrids from a few manufacturers. More and better units are coming. To the trend-seeking reader, hybrids are “in”. After putting 2300 miles on one over the course of 10 days, we can tell you why you’d want to own one. And why not.

High Technology
For the non-engineer, the term “powertrain” describes the complete engine/transmission combination, and in a hybrid they are truly one highly integrated unit. The Highlander’s 3.3-liter V6 internal combustion engine is matched to a highly complex transmission that is actually a pair of electric motors. These motors deliver the performance of a gearless continuously variable transmission (CVT). But, in fact, the similarities between the Highlander’s transmission and a CVT are about the same as comparing me to Paris Hilton. (She and I eat and breathe and walk on two feet … but otherwise we have nothing in common.) A high-voltage (650-volt!) battery back (located under the 2nd row of seats) stores and releases energy to supplant the engine, and when fully on-line add considerable power to the engine’s already robust 208 ponies.

Electrifying Performance This kind of power makes the Highlander Hybrid really quick … truly as fast as anybody would want an SUV to be. The downside of this power is that the Highlander Hybrid doesn’t get the kind of mileage one expects from a hybrid … a term that has taken on the Super Man connotation of single handedly being capable of delivering oil-independence to our county’s weary masses. Unfortunately, power costs fuel, so there is no free lunch here regarding the power versus economy equation.

On our Michigan to Florida round trip we averaged 23.6 mpg over 2,252 miles. We were hoping for better given the 27 mpg highway/31 mph city EPA estimate, but through living with the Highlander Hybrid (and others of its ilk) we began to understand their limitations.

First, in the never-ending balance between delivering performance and economy, Toyota biases their hybrids (except the Prius) toward delivering better performance. Also, current hybrids tend to realize the biggest economy boost in city-type driving where battery power can provide propulsion. On the highway, the hybrid’s electric motors don’t generate enough juice to help (except momentary bursts for passing), so the SUV relies on the power of its internal-combustion engine for speed. Our trip was mostly spent on open interstates at speeds well over 65 mph.

Whenever we drove at lower speeds around the tourist destinations of Florida’s panhandle, the MPG calculator edged upwards, a clear indicator of the powertrain’s low-speed/high-mpg capabilities.

Hy’s and Lows
When it comes to the Highlander Hybrid, this mid-size SUV is worth considering even if you’re not looking for a hybrid. Strong suits include:

Room for luggage … in our case enough to hold everything that one guy and three women (my wife and two daughters) would need for nine days. This is not a gender-biased comment, as both sexes will understand just how much room women require for a 9-day vacation. The luggage was all stored behind the second row of seats within the Highlander’s 39.7 cubic feet of storage … although the suitcases were stacked to the roof.
Quite cruising … on the highway there is little wind noise and the engine is almost silent. Some road and tire noise creeps in, but the overall aural sensation is more than satisfactory … almost luxury car quiet.
Solid ride … built off of the same engineering platform as the Toyota Camry and the Lexus RX330 crossover, the Highlander has a solid, comfortable ride. There was one occasional squeak, making the author think that Toyota isn’t as perfect as the general media would have us think. Darn good, but not perfect.
Excellent storage … the interior has many places to store stuff, from suitcases to cell phones to Big Gulps.
Useful 5 + 2 seating … the Highlander is truly a 5-passenger vehicle. Our model featured the optional 2-place rear bench seat that flips up out of the floor in the cargo area. Although the 3rd-row seating dimensions are tight, it’s tolerable for flexible kids, and they don’t mind being stashed back there for short rides.

The above strong points don’t pale when compared to the following demerits. The following are things that drivers will notice over time, and if you’re considering the Highlander, specifically the Hybrid model, you should know the following:
Power delivery needs refining … Most of the time, the Highlander Hybrid drives like a “regular” car or SUV. At first, it is odd that the engine stops at traffic lights and the like, resulting in an eerie silence. There is also a slight shudder once the engine restarts. In addition to these acceptable hybrid-specific anomalies, on hills, the hybrid powertrain has a feeling akin to a conventional transmission hunting for the right gear. It is a subtle surging feel. This condition could also be noticed when cruising at a steady 39 mph, a threshold speed that tended to confuse the powertrain computer about whether it should add electric motor power or not.
Braking feel … The brakes on the Hybrid feel different than a non-hybrid vehicle. For example, no matter how lightly you press on the brake pedal, the Highlander slows at a set constant rate. This makes it very hard to drive smoothly, as the initial rate of braking is somewhat abrupt. In truth, when you first touch the brakes lightly, you’re not engaging the brakes. The slowing you feel is cased by the resistance of the powertrain recharging the batteries, and when the system is recharging, it causes a specific drag. Most people will learn to live with it without complaint.
Lacking information … Amusingly, in this ultra high-tech example of automotive engineering, there is no way to know how far you can go on the fuel remaining in your tank. There is no distance-to-empty readout.
#%&!! traction control … Unfortunately, there is no way to disable the standard electronic traction control. When photographing the Highlander for this story, we found a road down to the beach. Our goal was to put a sand dune behind the truck to make a nice photo. Even though our Highlander Hybrid featured four-wheel drive (the internal combustion engine and transmission/motor combo drives the front wheels while another electric motor powers the rear wheels), in very shallow sand while still on the access road to the beach, the Highlander stranded itself immediately. With the wheels spinning in the sand, the traction control thought we were “slipping” on dangerous ice or snow and decided for us that we should just be parked. Without being able to spin the wheels to gain some traction, we could not extricate ourselves from the sand, and needed several beachgoers to push us out. For this otherwise capable SUV to essentially strand itself seemed entirely out of character. And very frustrating to the driver. It’s a helpless feeling to know the vehicle could easily drive itself out of the situation if it would only let itself. While Toyota corrected this oversight on gasoline powered Highlanders for 2008, on 08 Highlander Hybrids, there is still no “off” switch for the traction control.

Is the Hy-life right for you?
If you’re in the market for an SUV, consider the Highlander Hybrid, but do so for the right reasons. If you’re looking to drive a hybrid that compromises nothing in performance, the Highlander is an excellent choice. If you’re truly looking for an SUV that maximizes fuel economy, the Ford Escape/Mercury Mariner Hybrid twins are a better choice. The duo from Ford utilizes a 4-cylinder engine in their hybrid powertrain, so their mileage is considerably higher (34 city/30 highway). While they are slightly smaller than the 2007 Highlander, they still offer ample room for five passengers plus cargo.

It’s also worth knowing that the 2008 Highlander is coming later this summer. It’s an all-new, much larger vehicle with mileage that matches the 2007 model. However, if the current Highlander is the right size for you, you need to know that Toyota must sell the 2007 models has left, so you may be able to strike a good deal.

Top-Line Specifications

Vehicle:  2007 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
Engine    3.3-liter V6   2 08 horsepower/212 ft-lb torque
Electric motor(s)	• Front motors #1 and #2, 167 hp/247 lb-ft torque 
			• Rear motor, 68 hp/96 lb-ft torque
Powertrain total	268 horsepower between gas engine + electric

Transmission		Automatic, continiously variable gearing
Seating		2/3/2 = 7
Cargo room, max	80.6

* What’s a Short Shift?
This moniker describes the fuel-efficient technique of shifting
a manual transmission up to a higher gear at a lower engine speed.

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