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2008 Toyota Highlander - Preview

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2008 Toyota Highlander

By Carey Russ
The Auto Channel

SEE ALSO: Toyota Buyers Guide

"Sometimes you feel like a truck, and sometimes you don't" said Toyota with the debut of its Highlander back in 2001. Based on the Camry front-wheel drive unibody platform, it offered an attractive alternative to the body-on-frame 4Runner for people who liked SUV styling but preferred a vehicle that was basically a car, and who had no use for the 4Runner's serious off-road ability. It quickly became a benchmark in the then-new mid-size crossover SUV class. And then the introduction of the Highlander Hybrid for 2006 expanded both the Highlander and Toyota hybrid lineups, and the Highlander Hybrid became Toyota's second most popular hybrid, outsold only by the Prius.

There have been significant changes in the auto industry since the Highlander's introduction. Following in its footsteps, crossovers seem to have taken over, so there is much more competition than there was seven years ago. When a new generation of Camry appeared last year, there was little doubt that a new Highlander would shortly debut. It's here now, at least in gasoline-only form. Hybrids will show up in late September.

The second-generation Highlander is larger, more spacious, more powerful, and positioned a little more upscale than the first generation. All three gasoline-only trim levels - base, Sport, and Limited - are V6-powered. The four-cylinder is history.

The old 3.3-liter, 215 horsepower V6 has been replaced in the regular Highlander by the new 3.5-liter, 270-horse V6 also found in the Camry, Avalon, and RAV4. It's designed for efficiency, low emissions, and good fuel economy. Even with the significant power increase, it will get an 08 Highlander a mile further on a gallon of unleaded regular than the old engine. EPA estimates are 18 city / 24 highway / 20 combined for front-wheel drive, and 17/23/19 for four-wheel drive. The transmission is a five-speed automatic with uphill/downhill shift logic for improved performance on grades.

The 3.3-liter V6 is in the Hybrid, in 209-hp tune along with three 650VAC permanent magnet motor-generators. MG1 functions as the generator, engine starter, and CVT transmission control. MG2, with a maximum of 167 hp and 247 lb-ft of torque, drives the front wheels alone or in parallel with the gasoline engine. It also provides power generation by regenerative braking. The rear motor-generator, with 68 horsepower and 96 lb-ft of torque, drives the rear wheels when extra traction is needed and provides regenerative braking and power. The maximum total output of the hybrid system is 270 horsepower. Hybrids will be offered in base and Limited models.

As before, non-hybrid Highlanders are offered with front- or four-wheel drive. As is typical in the crossover class, "four-wheel drive" means a single-range system, designed for the all-weather on-road use that is the natural habitat of a crossover. In many competitors, this also means an automatic part-time system, which runs in front-wheel drive mode until wheelslip activates torque transfer to the rear wheels. 4WD Highlanders use a full-time all-wheel drive system, with a 50/50 front/rear static torque split, for better traction in all conditions.

Outside, new styling from Toyota's Newport Beach, CA-based CALTY design studio gives the new Highlander more presence on the road than its forebear. It was meant to look strong but refined, rather than off-road rugged, and CALTY has been successful to that end. The new Highlander is noticeably larger, with a four-inch greater length, three inches more of wheelbase and width, and another inch of ground clearance.

The Highlander's Camry-based unibody structure features fully-independent strut suspension and high levels of passive and active safety equipment. Its structure is designed to protect occupants by controlled deformation and energy absorption in a crash, and seven airbags - dual front, front seat-mounted side, driver's knee, and full-length head curtain with a rollover-sensing feature - are standard. So is the "Star Safety System", which includes enhanced Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), traction control (TRAC), antilock braking (ABS), electronic brake force distribution (EBD), and brake assist (BA) systems. Electric power steering allows the steering system to be integrated into other vehicle control systems for improved driver control in emergency situations.

Inside, changes are the most noticeable and notable. For a start, with increased length and width there is much greater space. A steering wheel that is both tilt- and telescope-adjustable and Optitron backlit instruments help to improve the driver's experience, but passengers are certainly not forgotten. The "Center Stow" (tm) second-row seat, standard in all grades, is especially interesting. It consists of a console that can either be fitted between the second-row captain's chairs or stowed easily and conveniently under the front console. When it's placed between the second-row seats, the front storage space is available for other uses. The standard third row can fold flat into the floor for cargo use, and the second-row seats are designed for easy third-row access.

I had the opportunity to sample both gas and hybrid versions of the new Highlander during a recent press preview in Stevenson, Washington, on the north bank of the Columbia River about 30 miles east of Portland, Oregon. The drive route included highways and byways in Southern Washington, and even a section of well-maintained dirt road. I started in a Sport model, then drove a Limited, and finally had a short stint in a Hybrid.

I was most impressed by the Sport, and by its suspension in particular. A bit firmer than the base and Limited grades, it was still comfortable but had noticeably less body roll when cornering. Both versions were commendably quiet. I drove the short dirt section in the Limited, and it was comfortable and capable. No, this was not serious off-road activity by any means - any car with reasonable clearance would have had no problem on that road, and many improved dirt roads are actually smoother than what passes for pavement in many parts of the country. If you want a midsize Toyota SUV with serious off-road ability, a 4Runner or FJ Cruiser is a much better choice. The Highlander excels at its intended mission, a right-sized family carryall made for the everyday world. Strong, smooth power is available from the new engine, for effortless driving in all real-world conditions.

After the main ride and drive, I went for a short drive in a Hybrid. Although it has the 270 horsepower rating as the gas version, the power is delivered very differently, and because of the hybrid system there is an extra 300 pounds of weight compared to a similar gasoline model. "Performance" for hybrid buyers means fuel economy more than acceleration, and with EPA estimates of 27 mpg city and 25 highway it will best the 4WD gas model's 17/23. As with other Toyota hybrids, it's extremely quiet and refined, and the hybrid system hardware has a minimal impact on interior space.

With its new style and increased interior space, power, and capability, the second-generation Toyota Highlander will force its competitors to play catch-up again.