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Horseback riding in Carmel at Pebble Beach
The original sustainable green 4x4, off-road 'vehicle'. Her name is Spice and she slowly, but faithfully transported me along the wooded edge of fabled Pebble Beach country club, over dunes, through deep sand and along the Pacific coastline. With me is Off Road magazine writer/photographer, Steve Temple. Beyond us is the famous Carmel peninsula south of Monterey, California, the site of some of the world's most famous golf courses and most expensive homes.

Talk About Horsepower!

EV World's editor gets invited to the Toyota Highlander Hybrid LLPP, discovering the exhilaration and frustration of driving hand-built, half-million dollars cars and SUVs.

By Bill Moore

Honest injun, dear reader, I had every intention of telling you all about the 2006 Highlander Hybrid that is slated to go on sale in the Spring 2005, and I will, in due time. Trust me. But for now, I have to keep mum on what I experienced and learned about the newest addition to Toyota's gradually growing family of hybrid-electric vehicles.

Allow me to explain why.

Toyota graciously paid my way and that of more than 50 other journalists to beautiful Carmel, California; you know, the place where Clint Eastwood used to be mayor and the average medium home value is more than half a million dollars? The world's number two car maker put on a long lead press preview (LLPP) of its top-of-the-line Avalon sedan and its latest vehicle to boast the pacesetting Hybrid Synergy Drive, the 2006 Highlander Hybrid.

For initiates into the automotive public relations game -- including yours truly -- an LLPP is designed to give print magazines at least a three-month lead time to get the story into print about the time the targeted vehicle actually goes on sale. It's sort of a PR pincer movement of hopefully favorable press reviews and mass advertising that will create a positive buzz and help sell lots of new cars.

Being invited to a long lead affair is an honor accorded to relatively few working journalists, usually the top writers for the major car mags and business rags: Car and Driver, Motor Trend, Fortune. Then there are the rare exceptions like me, who blithely accepted Toyota's invitation to fly to Carmel and spend a day driving its newest products up and down the twisting roads of the Big Sur country, only to be told that I can't write about the cars until March 28, 2005, the end of official embargo date for publishing my impressions of the Highlander Hybrid.

There is one caveat to this stipulation, however, and I'll share that in a moment.

So, if you thought this story was going to be an inside peek at Toyota's latest addition to its gasoline-electric hybrid family, then you, like me, are in for a disappointment. As Mike Michels, the manager of Toyota's external corporate communications program explained as we drove down California Highway One, people have broken the embargo in the past and quickly found themselves not being invited back to future such events. Hint taken!

What I can say is that SUV fans looking for something 'greener' will not be disappointed. Trust me.

What Toyota and I agreed that I can tell you about -- with the exception of some non-embargoed information -- is the event, itself, which I think is instructive in understanding the importance Toyota is placing on their Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) system.

Typically, an LLPP like this would have focused exclusively on their flagship Avalon, itself an incredible piece of machinery, that someday in the future will also include HSD, though Toyota engineers and PR people were reluctant to say exactly when. That's probably because they first want to see how sales of Highlander Hybrids go. If the 100,000 "hand-raisers" who have already expressed interest in the world's first seven-passenger, mid-sized gasoline-electric hybrid sport utility vehicle is any indication, it will be as trend-bending as the 2004 Prius.

Over dinner at Casanova's in Carmel, I asked Sam Butto with Toyota's PR department about the importance of LLPP's vs what are called Short Lead Press Previews (SLPP), which are intended for newspapers -- and web 'zines -- who have far shorter lead times than do mass circulation magazines. Clearly, EV World would be considered a "short lead" publication since we can typically turn around a story in a few days, at the very most, and within hours, if pressed. So, why was I invited to the LLPP and not the SLPP?

According to Butto, car makers like Toyota typically bring out their senior management and top program engineers for the long lead events and usually hold them at special locations where the roads fit the type of vehicle being launched. For example, when Toyota debuted its new Tundra pickup, it chose Alaska for the LLPP event. It shipped all the trucks there and flew in handpicked members of the press, as well as its management, PR and engineering team members. The new Lexus RX500 Hybrid was unveiled to the press in Hawaii (would I loved to have been on that list).

Given EV World's specialized focus on electric-drive technology, the company felt we'd benefit from having access to Masaki "Frank" Sanayama, the Highlander Hybrid program manager in Japan. After all, it's not often you get to sip great California pinot noir at a famous Carmel restaurant with Toyota's Assistant Chief Engineer.

It turns out that Carmel is a favorite location with all the carmakers. While Toyota was feting us at the Carmel Valley Ranch, Porsche was doing its own LLPP just down the road at another exclusive resort. Not that what we were driving wasn't every bit as much fun. It's not everyday I get to drive away with a hand-built, pre-production prototype worth, I am told, half a million dollars.

The Avalon/Highlander Hybrid LLPP followed a well choreographed script with a Phoenix-based travel management firm handling journalist comings and goings, even arranging a horseback ride though famed Pebble Beach golf course for three of us. Toyota provided a comprehensive, morning-long briefing on each car; in the case of the Avalon, with incredibly detail, courtesy of Paul Williamsen, the top product guru at Toyota University in Torrance. I now know more about the new Avalon than I do my Honda Insight.

After the briefing and a polite grilling by the more knowledgeable members of the automotive press -- and many of these guys have an incredible grasp of automotive terminology and models -- we were invited to try out any of the available cars: including two versions of the Highlander Hybrid.

Toyota will let you drive the cars by yourself or with a "navigator" who might be another journalist or a Toyota employee. In my case, I first partnered with Michels and then Sandra Kayse, Toyota's National Car Marketing Manager. Hydrogen-advocate Tai Robinson, doing a freelance stint for H2 Nation, joined me for my last drive of the day in an Avalon over to the old mission in Carmel.

With the same kind of meticulous care they take in designing and building their cars, Toyota had prepared five separate test drive routes that we could use, each lasting up to an hour in length, which is a pleasant change from the five-minute spin around the convention center that I am usually limited to at most industry-related conference Ride & Drives. Here you get all the time you need to form impressions about the car, its performance, amenities and handling. The company prefers you stick to their planned routes, just in case you have a problem and don't show up after for a couple hours, they can come and find you. A prudent precaution with several million dollars worth of one-of-a-kind cars on the line.

Because I was focused on the Highlander Hybrid, I decided to drive the Brazil Ranch route, which took me twenty miles down Highway One just into the northern edge of the Big Sur. There we veered off the highway and wound up the mountain overlooking a glittering, steel gray Pacific shrouded in alternating veils of mist and scattered sunlight. Rounding a sharp bend, we entered the isolated little valley that was once the ranch of Candid Camera producer and host, Alan Funt. Today it is a ecological preserve and training center. I picked this route because it was the only real "off-road" course that allowed me to see how the SUV performed on a rutted, washboard, gravel and dirt road.

Toyota representatives caution, however, that the Highlander Hybrid is not intended to be a true "off-road" vehicle.

I drove both the two-wheel drive version and the 4x4 version and I'll tell you about both come March 28, 2005 when the embargo is lifted.

After a fun afternoon of bouncing up and down the original Pacific Coast "highway", which reminded me of some remote logging roads I've been over in Northern Idaho, and then blasting up the tortuously twisting Robinson Canyon Drive in one of the pre-production Avalons, we finished the day with a great Italian dinner at Casanovas. Instead of talking shop, several of us traded airline and flying stories since two of us had spent time in the airline business; me with Continental and a fellow journalist with Pam Am. It was a great way to end an exciting and illuminating day.

The next morning, Steve Temple, Tai Robinson and I spent a couple enjoyable hours doing a "Ride and Drive" evaluation of the original 4x4 sport utility vehicle -- the horse -- through the pine woods adjacent to the Pebble Beach golf course, down along the beach and back up through Spyglass Hill golf course. My little roan filly was named Spice. She was docile, tractable and solidly dependable, while Steve's larger gelding was sleeker, more muscular but definitely had an "emission" control problem. Tai's dappled gray brought up the rear and frequently lagged behind; in part, I think, because Tai kept taking cellphone calls.

Near the end of the ride, as we veered back into the woods, some thoughtless fool had parked their brand new, black Mercedes SUV right smack dab in the bridle path entrance, forcing the six of us to ride within inches of it. I have to admit that I took a certain amount of guileful satisfaction when our guide's horse shied and backed into the side of the car, leaving its rump print on left rear door. "Serves them right, " the young female guide muttered as she got the skittish mare under control and then urged the rest of us to come on through as well. I avoided hitting the car, but did brush the mirror. Maybe Spice shares my general disdain for SUVs, at least until they all become as clean and efficient as next year's Highlander Hybrid.

Okay, I promised I could tell you a little more about it, though only what is in the blue press release Toyota gave us.

The 2006 Highlander Hybrid is essentially identical to the current model in most every respect, except that this version will be a good second faster in zero-to-sixty terms. It is the first mainline Toyota vehicle to be "converted" to hybrid electric drive, so it will be a test of how many people are interested in paying a premium for improved performance and reduced emissions without feeling the need to make the same overt environmental statement as Prius buyers.

Sanayama and his team in Japan have seamlessly mated the HSD into the vehicle. To quote the press release, "It's all-new high-speed electric motor operates at twice the speed and delivers more than twice the power as the motor used in the four-cylinder Prius hybrid". The 3.3 liter V6 engine produces 268 peak horsepower but is expected to deliver better fuel economy than the current EPA average for a compact sedan, which is 27.6 mpg. Through some ingenious engineering -- more to come next spring -- the vehicle will be rated a SULEV or super ultra-law emission vehicle.

It will be offered in a two-wheel (front) drive model and a 4x4 model that includes an additional, rear-wheel drive electric motor "with intelligence". It will also incorporate Toyota's new Vehicle Dynamic Integrated Management System or VDIM. Again quoting the press release, "Monitoring a variety of sensors, the system is capable of anticipating pending vehicle control problems and then helping correct the situation with a combination of braking and throttle control. The new VDIM system is less obtrusive than conventional Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) but acts more quickly and effectively".

Stuart Brown, who writes for Fortune, and I decided to ask Sanayama about the computing power found in cars like the Highlander Hybrid and Avalon. We were curious about how many million lines of computer code it takes to run all these systems. Sanayama replied that he really didn't know, letting Paul Williamsen intervene by explaining that Toyota's computers are intentionally "dumb" for redundancy and reliability purposes. "We want them to be as dumb as a boat anchor," he said, implying that on the computer side of the engineering equation, the motto at Toyota is KISS, "keep it simple, stupid".

Somehow, I suspect that typically Japanese, self-effacing answer belies the hard work and the brilliance that goes into these machines. You'll just have to wait until next Spring to find out exactly how that translates into the 2006 Highlander Hybrid. It'll be worth the wait. Trust me.

Times Article Viewed: 11459
Published: 20-Nov-2004

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