Sunday, April 20, 2008

Toyota Highlander Hybrid -- Saving the Earth, a Little

Toyota’s Prius may be the archetypical hybrid, but there are actually three Toyota hybrids. You can get the Hybrid Synergy Drive system in the Camry sedan and the Highlander crossover/SUV too.

The all-new 2008 Highlander has grown, the better to accommodate a third row seat, which apparently the marketplace demanded. The new Highlander Hybrid stretches four inches longer on a three-inch-longer wheelbase and weighs a hefty 4,600 pounds.

The new Highlander has toned down most of the original model’s angular offroad look to a tailored essence of ruggedness. The shape hints at adventure but borrows generously from the current Toyota design book. Crafted at Toyota’s Calty Design Research in Newport Beach, the design features deeply worked side panels, more asymmetrical and three-dimensional shapes at both ends and an aggressively tapered nose.

Inside, the expanded accommodations feel a lot like Toyota’s upscale Lexus models, with their bold two-toning. However, the attractive woodgraining turns out to be fake, and the shiny console and chrome cupholder surrounds glare when the sun hits them. Of course the seats, in this case covered in leather, are very comfortable and supportive.

All Highlanders come well equipped, but my tester, a Limited, had a lot more stuff. On the outside, it flaunted fog lamps, puddle lamps, 19-inch alloy wheels, silver painted roof rails, and a rear glass hatch. Inside were heated leather seats, an upgraded audio system with six-disc changer and satellite radio capacity, illuminated vanity mirrors, auto-dimming rearview mirror, Homelink universal transmitter, and rear cargo cover. The Limited has more available options, too.

The extensive list of safety features is shared by both Hybrid models. The Star Safety System includes a wide range of electronic helpers. Vehicle Stability Control automatically adjusts engine output and braking force at each wheel and varies steering assistance as needed. Antilock brakes prevent wheel lockup in emergency stops. Electronic Brake-force Distribution distributes braking between the front to rear wheels depending on driving conditions and how heavily the Highlander is loaded.

As icing on this electronic cake, the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system monitors the whole thing, anticipating tire slippage and working with the electronic throttle and brakes. Yes, it’s complicated, but it should mitigate any concerns about driving a tall, heavy vehicle in any weather.

While the standard Highlander uses a new 3.5-liter V6, the Hybrid’s system employs a 3.3-liter V6 mated to a high-torque electric drive motor-generator. Toyota’s engineers made many upgrades and refinements to this year’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system, so it cranks out the same horsepower—270—as the regular car but uses electricity to make at least part of it.

So how good is the fuel economy and carbon impact on the environment? I compared my Cypress Pearl test vehicle to the standard 2008 Highlander I tested six months ago. The EPA mileage figures are 17 City, 23 Highway for the standard car and 27 City, 25 Highway for the hybrid. While hardly being Prius numbers, that’s a pretty good improvement. My actual mileage averages were 16.1 mpg for a week in the standard car and 23.5 mpg in the hybrid. That’s a 44 percent gain.

In the matter of environmental impact, the standard car earns a 7 out of 10 for Air Pollution and 5 out of 10 for Greenhouse Gases. Compare that to the hybrid’s scores of 9 and 8. That’s quite impressive.

Driving a hybrid vehicle is not much different from driving a normal one, but you can save fuel by paying attention. The Highlander Hybrid offers some useful features for taking control. The EV Mode switch lets you drive in pure electric mode for a limited distance and at low speeds. The car tends to do this automatically, but this could be a gas saver, and it’s whisper quiet. The ECON drive mode smoothes out throttle response—another fuel saver. The Hybrid System Indicator further guides you by offering Normal and Acceleration modes. By keeping the power meter needle on the dash within a certain range, you can achieve maximum fuel economy. Just be sure to watch the road, too.

Prices for Highlander Hybrids are $33,700 for the base car and $39,950 for the Limited, plus a $685 delivery fee (this could go up along with fuel prices). My tester had about $7,000 worth of options, totaling out at $46,899. The base nonhybrid Highlander starts at $27,300.

The $6,400 difference between base models shows that you will need to drive a lot before making up the cost difference with lower fuel consumption, but you can start emitting less carbon dioxide and fewer pollutants from the day you drive your Highlander Hybrid off the lot.