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2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Review

2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid  (select to view enlarged photo)
2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

The Highlander has been a mainstay of the Toyota line since its debut in 2001, and for good reasons. One of the first car-based "crossover" SUVs, it provided a more comfortable and more everyday use-oriented alternative to the traditional truck-based SUV, exemplified in the Toyota line by the similarly-sized 4Runner. Based on the Camry platform and so combining the ride and handling of a car with the space, cargo/passenger versatility, and style of an SUV, the Highlander was an immediate success. Unsurprisingly, it was quickly followed by city-oriented crossovers from Toyota's competitors.

In 2005, the Highlander line expanded with a hybrid version. With its upscale cousin, the Lexus RX400h Hybrid, the Highlander Hybrid marked the debut of the hybrid SUV, and widened the market for Toyota's full-hybrid system. That was another success, as the hybrid crossover SUV combined the advantages of the genre with improved fuel economy and reduced emissions, and the hybrid trendiness factor.

So no surprise that when the second-generation Highlander was introduced last Fall, a hybrid was in the model mix almost from the very beginning, debuting only months after the gasoline-only models. Like the rest of the Highlander line, the Hybrid is larger, more spacious, more powerful, and more refined than its predecessor. Standard active and passive safety equipment for all models is also at a higher level.

As previously, the Highlander Hybrid uses Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive full hybrid system to operate in full-gasoline, combined gasoline-electric, or electric-only modes. There have been some modifications, most apparently the "EV" button on the console that allows the vehicle to operate as an electric vehicle (EV) in certain conditions, and a new "econ" mode - toggled by the button next to the EV button - which re-maps throttle response for more gentle action, which improves fuel economy. Of any vehicle, hybrid or not.

Non-hybrid 2008 Highlanders are powered by a 3.5-liter, 270 horsepower V6 which drives the front or all wheels through a five-speed automatic transmission, and are offered in base, Sport, and Limited trim levels. The hybrid comes in base and Limited grades, in "four-wheel drive" form only. This variety of the Hybrid Synergy is a development of that used in the first-generation 4WD Highlander, with the gasoline engine - here a 3.3-liter, 209-hp V6 - and/or a motor-generator driving the front wheels through a continuously-variable transmission and a second motor-generator driving the rear wheels when front-wheel slip is detected. The maximum combined power of the system, with both electric motors and the gas engine running, is 270 horsepower. A 288-volt nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery pack stores electric power, and is recharged during driving.

Last summer, when the `08 Highlander was introduced to the automotive press, I spent a day driving examples of the Sport and Limited models, with only a short time in the hybrid. So when it came time to schedule a Highlander for a week's test, I chose a hybrid. It was a base model, but equipped with the "Popular Package Plus" option group, a comprehensive pricey trim and convenience package that essentially turns a base model into a Limited. A third-row seat than can be folded flat into the cargo floor, puddle lamps in the outside rearview mirrors, upgraded wheels and audio system, and a power tailgate with a glass hatch that can be opened separately are the most useful of its many features.

As has been the case with Toyota hybrids since the first Prius, everyday life with the Highlander Hybrid is remarkably unremarkable. Throttle response can be a bit unusual at times, because of interactions between the gasoline engine and electric motors, but the driver will quickly become accustomed to that. The Hybrid is even smoother and quieter than the regular models, and rivals some luxury brands in that respect. When power is needed, it's there with no more lag than in a vehicle with an automatic transmission, and fuel economy is somewhat better than a conventional gasoline vehicle of the same size and configuration.

APPEARANCE: Adjectives like "rugged" and "macho" are not going to be used to describe the new Highlander, as was Toyota's intention. Crossovers are, let's be honest, the station wagons of the day, and the Highlander, as the real Camry/Avalon wagon, is no exception. It may be taller than a car, but it's styled like a car, with integrated, body-colored bumpers, faired headlamps, the contemporary Toyota upside-down trapezoidal grille, and plenty of muscular but not muscle-bound body sculpting. It has grown noticeably in all dimensions, but still fits into the "mid-size" category. The Hybrid models get unique badging, wheels, and grille and rear bumper trim.

COMFORT: Exterior growth means more interior space, and the Highlander makes good use of it. And, the Hybrid's extra hardware has no impact on useable interior space, as the rear motor-generator is underneath, in the space that would otherwise be occupied by rear differential and the battery pack is under the second-row seat. Vents, for cooling air, are the only evidence of its placement. In materials and appointment, think equivalent-level Camry. The upholstery is cloth, although leather can be had in the Limited, and hybrids have maple-look woodgrain trim on the doors and console. Front seat comfort is very good, and the driver's seat is power-adjustable. The second row has what look like twin captain's chairs, much like the front buckets, and they adjust fore and aft. Business class, at least. Open the lower compartment, at the rear of the front console, and you'll find the "Center Stow"(tm) seat attachment to make the second row into a three-place bench. Or remove it and you'll have a huge storage space. Second-row forward movement comes in handy for third-row access, and as usual, the third row is best utilized by small people. Back up front, instruments are of Toyota's brightly lit "Optitron" design, easily visible at all times. The steering wheel is adjustable for both tilt and reach. Hybrids forego a tachometer, which is irrelevant, for a Hybrid System Indicator, which allows the driver to monitor energy consumption.

SAFETY: The Hybrid, like all other 2008 Highlanders, comes with dual advanced front airbags, seat-mounted front airbags, full-length side curtain airbags, and a driver's knee airbag. The front seats have whiplash-reducing active headrests. The "Star Safety System" (tm) consists of antilock four-wheel disc brakes with brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution, traction control, and VSC stability control. Unlike in other models, these systems, and the electronic steering controls, are further integrated in the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system. Hybrids also have a high-voltage cutoff system that isolates the 288-volt battery current in the event of an accident.

RIDE AND HANDLING: All Highlanders have a fully-independent strut-type suspension anchored to a rigid unibody. Ride comfort has precedence over handling, especially in the Hybrid. It also carries over 300 pounds more weight than an equivalent 4WD gasoline model because of the hybrid motors and batteries. So it is tuned more softly. It's very comfortable and extremely quiet. It's not meant for off-road use - electric motors and deep standing water are not a healthy combination.

PERFORMANCE: With more weight for about the same amount of power compared to the gas-only models, the Hybrid doesn't match them in acceleration, but under full throttle it's still quick enough to deal with any need for acceleration. As with Toyota hybrids from the days of the first Prius in this country, it's usually hard to tell what's providing the power at any given moment without looking at the energy display at the top of the center stack. The 3.3-liter gasoline engine produces 209 horsepower at 5600 rpm, and 212 lb-ft of torque at 3600. Motor-generator, also driving the front wheels, produces 167 hp at 4500 rpm and 247 lb-ft (more than the engine) from 0 through 1500 rpm. Output from both is managed by a computer-controlled CVT transmission. The rear motor-generator drives the rear wheels when front wheelslip is detected, and produces maxima of 68 hp between 4610 and 5120 rpm, with 96 lb-ft between 0 and 610 rpm. It is not physically connected with the front drivetrain. There are times when the electric motors or gasoline engine can come online suddenly, giving nonlinear throttle response. If a bit disconcerting at first, the driver will quickly get used to it and adapt - especially if using "econ" mode, which modifies throttle response to improve economy at some expense to performance. Like other full hybrids, the Highlander is at its most economical in low-speed and light-throttle situations. On level ground, or downhill, at steady speeds less than about 25mph, it can be put into EV mode and operate as an electric vehicle, at least until more power is needed or speed increases. Regenerative braking under deceleration recharges the batteries and decreases stopping distance. Fuel economy for my week was 24.3 mpg, and looking at the history display 24 to 25 overall seems to be usual. The regular 4WD Highlander is rated for an EPA 17/23, so there is an improvement.

CONCLUSIONS: The second-generation Toyota Highlander Hybrid improves on the first in space, comfort, and refinement.

2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Base Price			$ 33,700
Price As Tested			$ 39,614
Engine Type			dual overhead cam 24-valve aluminum
				 alloy V6 with VVT-i variable cam
Engine Size			3.3 liters / 201 cu. in.
Engine Horsepower		209 @ 5600 rpm
Engine Torque (lb-ft)		212 @ 3600 rpm
Electric Motor(s)		MG2 (front wheels) 167 hp @ 4500 rpm
					247 lb-ft @ 0-1500 rpm
				MGR (rear wheels) 68 hp @ 4610-5120 rpm
					96 lb-ft 0-610 rpm
Maximum system horsepower	270
Transmission			Continuously-variable (CVT)
Wheelbase / Length		109.8 in. / 188.4 in.
Curb Weight			4508 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		16.7
Fuel Capacity			17.2 gal.
Fuel Requirement		87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires				P245/55 SR19 Toyo Open Country A20
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc,
				 and regenerative braking standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut /
				 independent dual-link MacPherson strut
Ground clearance		7.3 inches
Drivetrain			transverse front engine and motor plus 
                                rear motor,front-wheel mechanical-electric 
                                drive, rear-wheel electric drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		27 / 25 / 24
0 to 60 mph				est. 7.5  sec
Towing capacity			3500 lbs.

Anti-theft system with engine immobilizer		$ 220
Popular Package Plus - includes:
  Popular Package - includes:
    fabric-trimmed third-row seat, 19", 10-spoke alloy wheels,
    color-keyed rear spoiler, puddle lamps, leather steering wheel
    and shift knob, 2nd row personal reading lamps, front visors 
    with lamps, 8-way power driver's seat, silver-painted roof rails,
    tonneau cover, power rear door, AM/FM/6-disc CD/MP3/WMA
    audio system, rear glass hatch, Homelink		$ 3,850
Manual rear air conditioning system with rear vents for
  2nd & 3rd rows					$   585
roof rack cross bars					$   229
Emergency assistance kit				$    70
carpet cargo mats, for 3-row seating			$   275
Delivery & processing					$   685