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2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid with Anaheim Convention Center and Arena in the background.

2008 Highlander Hybrid - Getting Better Is Getting Harder

EV World's publisher test drives Toyota's newly redesigned, Camry-based sport 'ute

By Bill Moore

I am going to have to ask Santa for a GPS system this Christmas, because the one I was expecting to find in the 2008 Highlander Hybrid just wasn't there. But that's my only real disappointment with the seven-passenger gasoline-electric hybrid SUV.

My plan to test drive the newly redesigned '08 model was brilliantly simple. I would arrive a day early in LA for the 23rd Electric Vehicle Symposium held at the Anaheim Convention Center next door to Disneyland. I would cruise on down the I-5 towards San Diego, basking in the bright Pacific Coast sun, while enjoying its warm, balmy breezes. Meanwhile, back home an ice storm was turning Omaha into a citywide ice rink. I'd leave the I-5 at Carlsbad, California and drive up into the foothills to visit Steve Fambo's facility where I would test drive the Aptera ultra-commuter. I figured I'd put at least a couple hundred miles on the sport 'ute before having to turn it back in at the airport mid-week.

It was a great plan, unfortunately, the weather here on the Great Plains and along the southern California coast had other ideas.

That Saturday, torrential rains were causing destructive mudslides north of San Diego, while back here in Omaha, the ice storm arrived three hours earlier than forecast. By the time I got up at a 3:45 AM to catch a 6 AM departure, the streets were already glazed with a quarter inch of ice and it was getting worse by the minute. An hour later, I was booked on the same flight the next day -- the weather was forecast to be much better -- and back in bed.

The flight out on Sunday went off without a hitch and by around 9 AM I was in Los Angeles where the rains that had caused the mudslides had moved east. The sun was warm and the notoriously dirty LA air was so clean I could see the mountains in the distance as I drove out the 105.

Toyota had generously arranged to have one of their press fleet vehicles waiting for me at a nearby airport parking vendor. Uncertain that the car would have a GPS system to help me get around the confusing mesh of freeways that crisscross the region, I wisely printed out directions and maps to my motel near Disneyland and the Convention Center. The directions would come in handy.

Actually, I should have written this review months ago. Toyota had invited me to their long lead press preview of the '08 Highlander Hybrid last Spring in Phoenix. But a wicked sinus infection forced me to cancel at the last minute.

Now with an open freeway ahead of me -- driving in LA on an early Sunday morning isn't too bad, actually -- and a brand spanking new $39,618 MSRP car under me, I had one primary objective in mind: see how the Highlander compared to the Ford Escape Hybrid I had driven back in September.

I realize that's a bit like comparing apples and avocados. The sub-$30,000 Escape seats five, the Highlander, seven. The Ford hybrid SUV uses a 2.3 Liter 4-cylinder engine in combination with electric drive that produces 155 hp. The Toyota boasts a 3.3 Liter V-6/electric drive that churns out 270 hp. The former has a tow limit of a 1,000 lbs, the latter will pull 3,500. The Escape had a GPS, the Highlander... nada.

Okay, so I am obsessing on the missing GPS like a Nebraska farm kid who wants his first .22 rifle for Christmas. The "Waveline Pearl"-colored Highlander had its share of nifty gadgets, including a back-up video camera, 6-Disc in-dash CD Changer with MP3/WMA playback capability, as well as being Satellite Radio-ready. Its sticker listed everything from an anti-theft alarm system with engine immobilizer to a $659 tow hitch w/ball mount. The safety features included front airbags, driver knee bags, side curtain air bags, even driver and front seat passenger side airbags. If this vehicle were involved in an accident -- God forbide -- the passengers would be enveloped in protective cushions of air. The result is the Highlander gets nearly a perfect five star safety rating for both frontal and side crashes. Only the passenger frontal crash rating earns four out of five stars.

But what I really wanted to know was would it display the kind of dramatic fuel economy improvement I had experienced in the Escape Hybrid, where I got as high as 36.1 mpg traveling at 60-63 mph.

When I'd picked up the Highlander Hybrid, the fuel economy display indicted that the previous driver had turned in a modest 23.5 mpg; okay, but nothing to phone home about. Headed east from LAX on the 105, I tried to keep my speed below 65 -- which isn't easy on a relatively empty freeway where everyone else is doing 70+. Unlike the the Escape where the same tactic produced a gradually improving fuel economy reading, in the Highlander it just didn't budge. About five miles east of the airport, I figured out how to reset the display and instantly the my fuel economy jumped -- briefly -- to 79.5 mpg and steadily declined from there, finally settling around 30.5, give or take a few tenths of mile per gallon.

Now this 4WD model of the Highland is officially rated a 27 city/25 highway, so I was, in fact, seeing a 5 mpg improvement, which isn't bad for a 4,508 lbs. vehicle that is 263 lbs. heavier than the previous model. And like the Escape Hybrid, the SUV actually performed better during my short driving test between Anaheim and LAX than the official EPA estimates.

Although the 2008 model is heavier than the previous version, it is actually slightly smaller. The 2006 model has an overall length of 188.4 inches and a overall width of 75.2 inches; while the 2008 is 185.6 inches long and 71.9 inches wide. Yet, despite this, Toyota engineers have actually expanded the interior volume from 144.8 cubic feet to 155.7 cubic feet.

Toyota's press kit also notes that its stylists at Calty Design Research in Newport Beach have moved away from the rugged, off-road lines to a "statement of strength"... "of intelligence over toughness."

Underneath its SUV skin is the same chassis found on the new Camry/Avalon, but raised to 7 inches of ground clearance should you decide to take this expensive piece of hardware off-road. (Why doesn't someone just bring back the simple but rugged Willy's jeep or Dodge Powerwagon sans all the posh appointments for the folks who really do need to go off-road? I mean, are you going to throw a bleeding deer carcass in the back of this leather-appointed, plush-carpeted car?)

The advantage of this high stance is it gives you great highway visibility, no doubt, but it also subjects you and your passengers to a greater chance of rollover. According to the my copy of the vehicle sticker, the Highlander Hybrid hasn't yet been rated for rollover. That's why this model came equipped with roll-sensing side curtain airbags. Toyota says that part of the weight increase in the new model was to add additional safety elements to the vehicle.

So, how would I rate it? Nice. Perhaps a modest improvement over the previous model, but nowhere nearly as exciting an improvement as I discovered in the Escape Hybrid, at least in terms of fuel economy. If you need to haul up to 7 people and pull a powerboat behind you, then the Highlander will be the hybrid SUV you're looking for at a price that is about $15,000 less than GM's new two-mode hybrid Tahoe and Yukon SUVs.

But maybe what the real moral of the story here is that once you've exploited the easy fuel economy gains, it gets a lot harder -- and more costly -- to make dramatic gains without radically rethinking what we consider a motor vehicle to be. Certainly small, incremental improvements are possible and likely, but the BIG question is, given the challenges looming ahead of us, is that really good enough?

Is the future the 35 mpg luxury SUV or the 200 mpg Aptera?

Times Article Viewed: 15785
Published: 14-Dec-2007

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