There are two overriding reasons to buy a gas-electric hybrid vehicle like the Toyota Highlander Hybrid: increased fuel efficiency and reduced exhaust emissions. Unfortunately, both notions generally have held little appeal in the U.S., where, until recently, gas has been cheap and the desire for high horsepower outweighs concerns about air pollution.

Now that gasoline is averaging around $2.50 a gallon across the U.S. and looks to go higher, people are beginning to pay attention.

The marketing departments at big automakers haven't been doing a good job of dispeling incorrect preconceptions about gas-electric hybrid vehicles. These include the belief that hybrids need to be plugged in to recharge, that they don't use gasoline, that they have the acceleration of a rusty bike, that they require solar panels and that they don't look like typical cars or SUVs. It doesn't help that automakers have been criticized for overblowing fuel efficiency estimates on hybrid vehicles.

The fact of the matter is that hybrids, unlike some earlier alternative-energy cars, are virtually indistinguishable from any other car on the road. They don't need to be plugged in or be outfitted with solar panels, they accelerate just fine and burn the same fossil fuel as conventional vehicles. The point is that they don't burn as much of it.

There are currently 10 different hybrids on the market in the U.S. Ford was the first to market with a hybrid SUV when it rolled out its Escape Hybrid last year. A Mercury Mariner Hybrid twin soon followed. Toyota's Lexus division has already launched the RX 400h, a hybrid version of the luxurious and sporty RX 330 SUV, which shares its platform with the Toyota Highlander.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy's Web site, 12 more hybrids will launch by the end of 2008, all of them hybrid versions of existing nameplates. GM will be the most aggressive, adding five new models.

Toyota recently announced that it would be developing 10 hybrid models for sale in the next decade and that it expects to sell one million hybrids worldwide, with the U.S. accounting for 25 percent of sales.

Hybrids remain obscure and will comprise a miniscule amount of Toyota's 2005 projected U.S. sales of 2.5 million vehicles. They're more expensive than comparable convential vehicles, even if they cost less to fuel up. For example, the 2006 Highlander Hybrid with front-wheel drive costs $7,440 more than a comparably equipped non-hybrid Highlander (with front-wheel drive and a V6 engine).

There are many things to consider before buying a hybrid vehicle, which may outweigh the higher cost. For the Toyota Highlander this includes the fact that the hybrid model is not only more fuel efficient, but more powerful than the regular V6 version.

Two electric motors -- one driving the front wheels and one driving the rear wheels -- assist the Highlander Hybrid's 208-hp V6 gasoline engine, bringing the vehicle's total power output to 443 hp and 555 lb.-ft. of torque (see our specs page for a breakdown). By comparison, the regular V6-equipped Highlander puts out 230 hp and 242 lb.-ft. of torque. However, the hybrid's extra 420 lbs. of weight and the fact that each electric motor only operates at certain engine speeds does lessen the power advantage.

From the Driver's Seat

The Highlander Hybrid looks virtually identical to its non-hybrid twin, inside and out. No unusual toggles or switches festoon the dashboard. In fact, it is not until the key turns in the ignition that differences between the hybrid and standard Highlander become apparent.

For one thing, there is virtually no sound as the hybrid gas/electric engine turns over. The only indication that the car has started is a little "Ready" light that flashes on the left-hand gauge. In the center gauge, below the speedometer, is a digital screen that displays what Toyota calls the vehicle's "Synergy Drive", informing the driver when the car is drawing power from the gas engine, the battery or both.

The Synergy Drive automatically controls energy usage, working seamlessly between the battery-powered electric motors (there are three: one driving the front wheels, one driving the rear wheels and one contorling the transmission ratio and starter) and the 3.3-liter V6 engine. The vehicle can be driven on the electric motors alone, usually for short distances at low speeds. The engine kicks in when power is needed to recharge the battery or when the car requires more power, such as when accelerating or maintaining high speed.

The other way the battery recharges itself is through regenerative braking. This happens during coasting or braking, when the motor and/or brakes (through friction) generate energy that is converted into electricity and then stored in the battery.

The result is a vehicle that is not only the most fuel-efficient SUV in its class, but also accelerates respectably, going from zero to 60 miles per hour in around 7.3 seconds, on par with the V6-equipped regular Highlander.

In other respects, the Highlander Hybrid is identical to the regular model. It comes with either front- or four-wheel drive, has standard third-row seating, and offers optional amenities such as leather seats, satellite navigation, a DVD entertainment system and various other bells and whistles.

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