2007 Highlander New Car Test Drive
There are certain rights and privileges afforded the Mercedes-Benz SL320 driver that are not ordinarily extended to drivers of lower-priced vehicles.
For example, after genuflecting, parking valets will make certain your car is parked in front, safe from all manner of dents and dings, as well as from the inconvenience of having to wait for your Mercedes to be brought around.
And on the road, left-lane squatters will quickly take heed of the broad, star-tipped hood in their mirror and virtually leap to the next lane, allowing for safe and expedient passing.
You see, the most important - or annoying, as the case may be - point of owning a the SL320 is that it is never invisible. Whether clean or dirty, moving fast or slow, everyone notices the SL320. Frankly, it's just too difficult to ignore.
Walking toward the SL320 with key in hand imparts a sense of awe mingled with delight. The awe is because the key might as well be a house key, for the SL320 costs about as much as the average single-family house.
As mind-numbing as its stratospheric prices may be, Mercedes is recognizing the importance of value - even in premium luxury cars. In fact, the automaker has loaded its new S-Class and SL-Class models with more standard equipment and lowered the total amount.
Mercedes Benz SL-Class models include the SL320, SL500 and SL600. For our test drive, we chose the SL320 convertible, which featured no optional equipment and came in at $78,775. Five years ago, Ford decided the time was right to develop a 'world car' that would be designed and engineered on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and sold in markets all around the globe.
Although the company had achieved only moderate success with this global strategy in the past, Ford was fairly sure that consumer tastes, safety standards and emissions regulations had become sufficiently similar across the board for the concept to finally take off.
The world-car benefits to the automobile manufacturer are multiple: reduced duplication of effort with regards to engineering, reduced manufacturing cost and even some simplification of marketing campaigns.
The benefit to U.S. consumers is a car with a European character, meaning it has exceptional handling, a plus for accident avoidance and driving pleasure.
Three cars have emerged from Ford's world-car decision. In Europe, the vehicle is called the Ford Mondeo, while the U.S. versions are known as the Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique.
The European Mondeo, introduced in March 1993, was voted 1994 European Car of the Year by an international panel of automotive writers, and more than a half-million orders have been placed since its introduction. Ford's ultimate plan is to sell 800,000 of these cars annually in 59 markets around the world.
Contour and Mystique models, assembled at Ford's Kansas City, Missouri, and Cuautitlan, Mexico, plants, made their showroom debut in September. Most people associate the Mercury nameplate with large and luxurious sedans such as the opulent Grand Marquis, or with rebadged Ford economobiles such as the Tracer. Canadians may recall seeing that name on the tailgates of pickup trucks until a few years ago, but that particular aberration never made it to America.
Mercury product planners are as aware as anyone of what goes on outside their own domain, and the healthy sales of minivans led them to ask Ford for a van of their own.
Which is exactly what they almost got. As it happened, Nissan was looking to move deeper into minivan territory with something more mainstream than its existing vans, none of which were doing big box-office at the time. To make a long story shorter, Nissan and Ford joined forces to produce the Nissan Quest and Mercury Villager, near-identical twins assembled in a Ford facility in Ohio using components from Nissan parts bins.
One result of this venture is that the Villager started life with the Quest as a close competitor. Beyond that, all the Villager has to do is entice buyers away from such stalwarts as the Chrysler minis, Ford Windstar, Mazda MPV and others. A tall order.
Nonetheless, the Villager enters the arena with some definite points on its side. It may not be the best minivan of all (though it would be difficult, if not impossible, to pick an absolute best buy), but it's certainly good enough to deserve careful consideration from most minivan customers. A new gas-electric hybrid model has joined the Toyota Highlander line for 2006. The Highlander Hybrid uses Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive.
The Toyota Highlander is the best-selling vehicle of its type, a midsize sport-utility based on a car. Highlander's popularity is partly because it's a Toyota, which promises top-notch quality, durability and reliability. But it's also a result of its practicality and easy manner.
The Highlander is, after all, the easiest of motoring companions. Getting in and out couldn't be easier. Accommodating various combinations of people and cargo is easy. Seating for five comes standard, but the Highlander can carry up to seven passengers with the optional third-row seat. Folding the seats down reveals 80 cubic feet of cargo space.
Underway, it's smooth and quiet. Its independent suspension is set up for comfort and ride quality as a priority. The Highlander is based on the Lexus RX and offers much of what made that luxurious crossover SUV popular. In many ways, we like the Toyota better than the Lexus.
It's available with four-cylinder or V6 power, and a choice of front-wheel drive or full-time four-wheel drive. The standard Highlander with the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive performs well around town and on the open highway, delivering responsive performance when merging into highway traffic. Equipped with the larger 3.3-liter V6 and all-wheel drive, the Highlander offers strong power and secure handling in nasty weather.
The new Highlander Hybrid is surprisingly powerful, more powerful than the regular V6 models. The Hybrid combines a 3.3-liter V6 with an electric motor, or two motors in the case of all-wheel-drive models. The electric motor improves acceleration, helping the Hybrid to easily keep up with big, powerful SUVs. This urge to speed comes at a major cost to fuel economy. It's estimated at just 33/28 mpg City/Highway by the EPA, and you may never see that. The real story here is emissions. The Highlander Hybrid will be classified by the government as a Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle, or SULEV. You could drive across America several times and emit fewer pollutants than someone painting a bedroom.
First introduced as a 2001 model, the Highlander was substantially revised for 2004. The 2005 models added more standard equipment. The Hybrid is new for 2006; the other models carry forward largely unchanged.
The Toyota Highlander is available in base or Limited trim, each with front-wheel drive or full-time all-wheel drive. A choice of three powertrains is now available: A 2.4-liter inline-4, rated at 160 horsepower, comes standard. A 3.3-liter V6 that produces 230 horsepower is optional on the base Highlander and standard on the Limited. The new Hybrid combines a 3.3-liter V6 with a high-torque electric drive motor-generator, a system called Hybrid Synergy Drive. Four-cylinder models come with a four-speed automatic transmission; V6 models get a five-speed automatic. The hybrid uses an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission, or CVT.
The base four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive Highlander ($24,530) comes with air conditioning, power windows and door locks, cruise control, cloth upholstery, and seating for five. The all-wheel-drive four-cylinder Highlander ($25,930) is similarly equipped as is the base front-wheel-drive Highlander V6 ($25,590). Same deal with the all-wheel-drive V6 Highlander ($27,840) except it comes standard with the third row.
Limited 2WD ($30,460) and Limited 4WD ($31,860) models come standard with the V6 and third row. The Limited also gets automatic climate control, an eight-speaker JBL sound system, eight-way power driver's seat with adjustable lumbar support, four-way power passenger seat, 17-inch aluminum wheels, roof rack, fog lights, rear privacy glass, heated mirrors, remote keyless entry with security system and engine immobilizer, wood-grain interior trim, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and other amenities.
The Highlander Hybrid is available with 2WD ($33,030) or 4WD ($34,430). The Hybrid is also available as a Limited 2WD ($37,890) or Limited 4WD ($39,290).
Leather-trimmed seating (Ivory or Ash Gray) is available for the Limited ($670) or base model ($2,255). Other options: tilt-and-slide glass sunroof ($900), in-dash six-CD changer ($595). The optional rear-seat DVD system ($1,770) includes two wireless headphones, RCA input jacks for video games, and a household-style 115-volt AC power outlet. GPS navigation ($2,200) is offered on Limited only. A Towing Package ($160) includes trailer wiring plus an upgraded radiator, transmission oil cooler, and 130-amp alternator.
Safety features start with the three-point seatbelts and headrests for all seating positions. The front seatbelts include pretensioners and force limiters. Seatbelts are your first line of defense in a crash. Wear them. The driver and passenger front airbags inflate according to collision severity, and the front-seat passenger sensor is designed to determine if there is a person in the seat as well as the person's weight category to determine whether the airbag should inflate and the correct inflation power.
Optional side-impact airbags mounted in the front seats are designed to provide torso protection, while side curtain airbags are designed to protect the heads of first- and second-row passengers in a side impact or rollover ($680). Be sure to order them. Head injuries are the primary cause of death in side impacts. The second-row seat is equipped with the LATCH system with top tether anchors for all three seating positions and lower anchors for outboard seating positions. A new low-tire-pressure warning system is standard.
The Star Safety System, standard on all models, includes Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) and traction control, anti-lock brakes (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist.