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2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Review

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MODEL: Toyota Highlander
Hybrid ENGINE: 3.3-liter DOHC V6 with Hybrid Synergy Drive
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE: 230 hp @ 5,600 rpm/242 lb.-ft. @ 4,400 rpm
TRANSMISSION: Continuously Variable Transmission
WHEELBASE: 106.9 in.
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT: 184.6 x 71.9 x 66.1 in.
TIRES: P225/65R17
CARGO: 80.6 cu. ft.
ECONOMY: 31 mpg city/27 mpg highway/21.6 mpg test
PRICE: $36,964

Over the course of the past few months I've had the opportunity to put a lot of miles in all variations of the Toyota Highlander family. These are, of course, the conventional Highlander with a 230 hp V6 engine and a five-speed automatic transmission, and the Hybrid, with this engine in combination with a 123 kw electric motor to produce a total of 268 hp. The Hybrid had a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT).

We drove the standard Highlander over more than 2,000 of roads, primarily highway on long trips. The Hybrid, on the other hand, we used for around-town driving, where the economy of the hybrid technology is supposed to shine.

We averaged 23.8 mpg in the conventional Highlander; 21.6 in the hybrid.

I know many people have said they have been disappointed with the fuel economy of hybrids. I have always been one of the hybrid's strongest proponents, feeling this was the way to go in the future. So I, too, was shocked by the poor economy of the HH.

I think there is a flaw in Toyota's thinking with its hybrids that are derived from other vehicles, as opposed to the Prius, which was a hybrid from the start. The Prius, by the way, gets more than 45 mpg in average driving, according to a golfing buddy of mine who owns one.

The flaw is that Toyota (and Lexus with the R400h) simply adds the electric motor to the normal gasoline engine. I feel that before the electric motor is added, the manufacturers should REDUCE the size of the gasoline engine. Ford does the same thing with the Escape Hybrid. The electric motor provides excellent low-speed acceleration, because that motor develops its best torque at low speeds. At higher speeds, when the gasoline motor takes over, it operates in its best area. But at higher speeds, a large engine isn't needed, so the manufacturer can get away with a smaller engine.

Sermon over.

The Highlander is a heck of a vehicle. As a sport ute it can traverse almost any kind of road. We tried it on wet roads, on mud, over a few back-country trails, and of course on highways. The standard Highlander is a bit noisy - engine noise and wind noise. We didn't notice this noise with the Hybrid because we were traveling for the most part at lower speeds. When we did get up in the 60-70 mph range, though, it was still my impression that the Hybrid was quieter.

We packed a load of stuff in the back of the Highlander. Both trips were for a week, and included golf bags and luggage for two people, plus extra suitcases we were delivering to a daughter and food for a week. As usual, we packed far too many clothes and the next time we make this trek we'll bring less.

Toyota quotes a cargo area of 80.6 cubic feet. This is with the rear seat folded flat. We also noticed that after folding the seat flat, we had a lot of storage area in the rear foot well, even with the rear seat headrest partially intruding. We could have tied additional cargo on top of the Highlander between the rails, but we chose not to.

We also had useful cubbies inside the car and power outlets to charge up cell phones and the like. I liked the storage area inside the center armrest. It was of a sufficient volume to hold a couple of small boxes we use to carry "travel items" like our EZ Pass, etc.

Instrumentation is fairly standard, with a speedometer, tachometer, fuel and water temperature gauges. We had a "check tire pressure" light go on the minute we took delivery. We checked the tires and inflated them to the proper pressure, but the light never went out. I know in my wife's car, there's a procedure that must be followed to reset this light. We didn't use it in the Toyota, but we did keep a careful eye on our tire pressures. In the Hybrid, the left-side tachometer is replaced by a power gauge. This indicated kilowatt usage and recharging. It isn't the most practical gauge and a tach would be more useful, as I will explain.

When you insert the key in the ignition of the hybrid and turn it, as if to start it, a "ready" light appears in the power gauge. You hear nothing. If you wait a couple of seconds you can hear the engine kick in. But if you just shift the transmission and drive off, the hybrid will operate as a normal car. When you've been going for a second or two, the engine starts working. A tachometer would be useful to tell you when the engine's working, or even on.

With all the miles we drove, and with my wife and my aching backs, we expected to have a few aches. They weren't there. The Highlander's seats were comfortable, and we could have driven even longer. Rear seat comfort was good, and rear seat legroom was excellent for a smaller vehicle.

Now the price. The standard Highlander was priced at $33,236, with $5,281 in options and a $565 delivery, processing and handling fee. The Hybrid was priced at $36,964, with $1,969 in options and the same delivery charge. The Hybrid carries a higher price tag. There are rebates in some areas for buying a Hybrid, which may bring the price of the two vehicles closer in line.

To sum up, I loved the Highlander for its utility and general power and practicality. I was disappointed in the Hybrid because of its lower fuel economy, but liked its silence.

2005 The Auto Page Syndicate