Highlander Hybrid... At Last!
By Bill Moore
I love wine, but like "Jack" in Sideways, I am no connoisseur, which is to say I don't have all that discriminating a palette. I probably couldn't tell the difference between a premium-priced Napa Valley pinot noir and its cheaper, Chilean counterpart.
The same thing applies to how I review cars. I like 'em, or I don't.
That little piece of personal insight was driven home while I rubbed shoulders with some of the best automotive writers in the business at a dinner party hosted by Toyota in Carmel, California last November. These guys make a serious living at automotive journalism, which is to say they get so many cars to test every year that they don't have to buy their own vehicles.... lucky sobs...
Toyota had generously invited me out for the Long Lead Press Preview of the new Toyota Highlander Hybrid and their new flagship Avalon. While nibbling on hors d'oeuvres and sipping a nice, fruity red wine from a local vineyard, I listened with rapt admiration as they bantered about subtle performance differences in the various cars they had tested over the last year.
Being one of the few electric-drive only guys at the party -- along with Ron Cogan -- I've not had the same opportunities. At that point in time, you could count on one hand the number of electric-drive vehicles available on the market.
While I test drove -- courtesy of Toyota's Bill Reinert -- one of the first Japanese model Priuses for nearly four months, I've only had an hour or so in the new Prius and half of that was observing. I've had even less time in the Honda Accord Hybrid. I did drive the Civic Hybrid down California Highway One back in 2002 as part of the first Fuel Cell Rally. I own one of the first Honda Insights ever built, and Ford informed me this week that I am now scheduled to have a new Escape Hybrid delivered to my door for a week's test drive about the time you read this.
So, an expert automotive evaluator I am not. My focus is on how 'green' is it? How fuel-efficient is it? How safe is it?
I also have to say that I am not a big fan of sport utility vehicles as fashion statements or status symbols. Give me the choice between a Prius or a Highlander and out of principle, I'd choose the former.
California's Big Sur was a thrilling backdrop for EV World's test drive of Highlander Hybrids.
But then if I lived along the rugged California coast south of Carmel where I test drove both the two-wheel and the four-wheel versions, I might just opt for the Highlander. If I can afford property there, I can afford a Highlander, which stickers out at $33,030 for the base 4X2 model and $34,430 for the 4X4 version. Upgraded Limited editions of each are closing in on forty grand. Chump change on the Monterey Peninsula.
There are, of course, lots of folks who seem to have a need for this class of vehicle and if you need to own an SUV, then you're going to want to seriously consider the Highlander Hybrid, which not only gets excellent fuel economy for its class, but has the power so many find important today.
I took my first test drive with Mike Michaels acting as my navigator; he is the manager of Toyota's external corporate communications program. The company had set up a number of different test drive courses around the Carmel-Monterey, California area. The only real 4x4 test drive, however was down Highway One about twenty miles to the famous Bixby Bridge.
4X4 Highlander Hybrid reflected in roadside mirror at sharp curve on road back into the Funt Ranch
Here, just beyond the bridge we turned left on to a narrow, winding black-top road that switch-backed up the side of the mountain and back into a secluded valley where the late-Alan Funt, creator of "Candid Camera", had his private ranch. Just on the other side of the ranch supposedly was the old, originally California Coast road. It resembles some gravel roads I've driven while scouting for elk and deer in Northern Idaho.
But before heading down the coast, we had to drive through the town of Carmel Valley, one of those pleasant little communities whose Hollywood celebrity-scale real estate prices belie its quaint, pedestrian demeanor. I took the opportunity just outside of town to see what Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive did for the 4X2 Highlander, which is Toyota's first conventional model to offer a gasoline-electric option.
Not being all that sophisticated an automotive aficionado, I first made sure no one was behind us and then slowed down on the four lane road east of town just enough to get a sense of how the two-ton SUV would accelerate.
With all clear, I stomped it!
The latest marketing ploy by Toyota and Honda is to sell their newest hybrids not as fuel-miserly eco-machines, but as tire-squealing, road-eating, "virtual V-8s". The Highlander lives up to that billing. It just flat out gets and goes. Zero-to-sixty is 7.3 seconds, courtesy of 288 volts of NiMH battery chemistry, boosted to over 600 volts.
Satisfied, I slowed back down to the speed limit and chatted amicably with Mike as we drove through the center of town, avoiding the seemingly around-the-clock bottle neck where the highway T-junctions into Highway One.
Heading south along the incredibly beautiful California coast, Mike and I talked about the latest episode of "West Wing" and the importance of not breaking the embargo by publishing this review before the March 28/May cover release date. I think I am safe now.
Based on the Camry car platform, the Highlander is a comfortable, nice handling machine, which is what I'd expect from Toyota. It seems at home in just about any setting, including a bumpy gravel road, though I wouldn't want to take it elk hunting in Northern Idaho, its a bit too citified for that... and much too expensive.
And in a way, that's the problem with most SUVs today, including the Highlander. They have morphed into a vehicle that tries to co-exist in both worlds, sort of the "super-dad" who's sensitive and tough at the same time. I doubt its anywhere near as rugged as my father-in-law's old International 4X4 -- though I'd hope its a heck of a lot more dependable -- and its really more car than is needed in most suburban-urban environments. It's advantage over the old fashioned family station wagon is its "command-of-the road" stance, placing the driver above other conventional cars... until everyone else is driving one, of course.
On the plus side, it's easier to get in and out of than my Insight, and has a heck of a lot more hauling capacity. Toyota says the Highlander has a 3,500 pound towing capacity. My Insight has trouble hauling my bike.
Returning the 4X2 model back to the Carmel Valley Ranch Resort, I eventually picked up the 4X4 model and Sandy Kayse, another really nice Toyota PR person. Again, I opted to drive back down to the Funt Ranch, which is now a not-for-profit environmental education center. I traversed the same route up the mountain, into the valley, through the ranch, out the back gate and then left down the mountain. Eventually we arrived back at Highway One, but on the north side of the Bixby Bridge.
Rugged Big Sur valley looking east towards the Funt Ranch in the distance on the right.
The jaunt through the Funt Ranch wasn't anywhere near demanding enough to require 4-wheel drive, which in the Highlander Hybrid means the rear axle is driven by a separate electric motor -- one of three in the drivetrain -- rather than a mechanical differential. It's comforting to know that it's there, especially in really bad weather on really bad roads, but I doubt most buyers will every really need it.
Personally, I've always been of the philosophy that says why bother? If it's that bad out, I probably shouldn't be out there anyway. If you have to, however, its nice to know you've got an additional 45 kW (62 hp) of power instantly ready to leap to your command, in addition to the 206 hp, V-6 up under that hood.
That being said, the smart driver will exercise caution using all that power, especially in demanding driving conditions, which is why Toyota gave the 4X4 Highlander Hybrid the world's first "intelligent" four-wheel-drive. Through the magic of computer programming and electric drive, the system senses the road and responds accordingly. And unlike conventional 4X4's, it also doesn't compromise fuel efficiency.
With respect to safety, the 2006 Highlander Hybrid incorporates an advanced version of the company's Star Safety System introduced in 2005. The new Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system "anticipates vehicle instability in virtually any direction and make stabilizing corrections while allowing higher dynamic capability", quotes the press release. Part of VDIM includes a new Electronically Controlled Braking system (ECB) that "translates brake pedal stroke and pressure and generates the precise amount of combined electric regeneration and hydraulic pressure needed for virtually any driving condition".
Add collision avoidance and GPS guidance and someday I won't even have to steer this thing. I'll just tell it where I want to go and whosh, we'll be off.
For parents with young children, the 80/20 second-row seat comes equipped with a Child Restraint LATCH System that provides top anchor tethers for all three seat positions and lower anchors for the two outboard seating positions. The driver and passenger are protected by advanced dual-stage front airbags that inflate according to the severity of the collision. Passengers are protected from rollovers and side-impact collisions with side airbags and side curtain airbags with rollover sensor.
The EPA rates the 4X2 Highlander Hybrid at 33 in the city and 28 on the highway. The 4X4 version is rated at 31/27. During my brief, 40 mile romps up and down the Coast highway, I got a solid 28+, verging on 29 mpg. That's without the air conditioner, defrost or heater running, of course. Your mileage is likely to vary.
Finally, just as important as fuel economy, the Highlander Hybrid is a jewel when it comes to emissions. In California, it's rated as SULEV, "super ultra low emission vehicle". That's actually better than my little, two-seat Honda Insight. Proving that is it possible to be both "mean" and "green".
If you need an SUV and want something with more room than the Ford Escape Hybrid, check out the mid-sized Highlander Hybrid come this June when it starts arriving at a Toyota dealer near you. Of course, if it sells anywhere near as fast as the Prius, you may have to pay a premium for the privilge.
So, California or Chilean pinot noir? Does it really matter? I liked it.
Here's Toyota's offical specs on the 2006 Highlander Hybrid.
EV World editor Bill Moore during test drive of 4X4 Highlander Hybrid with Bixby Bridge in background.
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