30 Minutes with the Highlander Hybrid

Toyota has been on a roll with hybrids lately, with the 170,000 units sold in 2006 expected to be easily eclipsed this year by 80,000 units or more. The Prius is the obvious hybrid sales leader, but the Highlander came in at a surprising 2nd place last year, with 31,000 units sold. That number should only go up with the introduction of the 2008 Highlander Hybrid, which is expected to arrive in dealerships at the end of September. We had a chance to take Toyota's battery-assisted CUV for a spin during the vehicle's unveiling in Dearborn, Michigan, and we found a vehicle that was spacious and clever on the inside and better looking outside (that was easy).

Of course the single aspect of the hybrid version of the Highlander that intrigues us the most is the powertrain, and from our standpoint Toyota has done a good job of integrating their battery technology into this seven-seat CUV. $3 per gallon gasoline has placed fuel economy at the top of everybody's mind right now, and the 2008 Highlander Hybrid has upped the ante, if only slightly. Using the EPA's new fuel economy calculations, the 08 model achieves 27mpg in the city and 25mpg on the highway. Those numbers are exactly the same for 07, but the new EPA numbers are stiffer, and account for aggressive driving and the use of air conditioners. What's impressive is that Toyota managed better fuel economy on a larger CUV that weighs 300lb more than the vehicle it replaces, while working with the same 3.3L V6 paired to essentially the same battery pack.

The 2008 Highlander Hybrid comes with plenty of great standard features like backup assist with a dash-mounted 3.5 inch screen, 19' rims, seven air bags, and stability control. The hybrid can also tow 3500lbs while boasting SULEV emissions. Also standard are and EV mode that can go 1-2 miles at speeds under 25mph while using only the battery. Another fuel-saving technology is Toyota's Econ mode, which helps achieve better gas mileage by governing the amount of throttle that can be used at any time. Click through to read our driving impressions of the 2008 Highlander Hybrid.

Very little differentiates the hybrid Highlander from the standard gasoline-powered model, but the hybrid is easily distinguishable by the different front grille and the the Hybrid Synergy Drive badging. On the inside, the hybrid loses the sequential shift transmission, but gains an EV mode button. The green Highlander has blue lighting in the gauge cluster, while the gas version has red. Toyota isn't exactly taking any big risks with the Highlander's styling, but it's at least superior to the model it replaces. Toyota did a superb job with interior packaging, and you can read all about the updates on Autoblog here. We even have video of Toyota's interior packaging overview presentation.

In our limited time driving the Highlander Hybrid, we were impressed with the vehicle's roominess, its smooth ride, and Toyota's attention to detail. The gauge cluster has easy to understand ways to show battery charge, and drivers can easily note when they're getting the most out of your alternative powertrain by keeping the needle in the prescribed range. During our drive, the EV mode only worked for about 200 yards, but that was because the battery wasn't fully charged, and four bars on the 3.5 inch display are needed for EV-only operation to work. It was easy to run on batteries only at low speeds even without EV mode, and the transition to gasoline power was barely detectable. Steering was light and slightly vague, but that's standard fare in a family hauler.

Toyota sold 31,000 Highlander Hybrids last year, and with the 2008 model better in every way, 2007 and beyond should be even better. The only gripe we had with the hybrid version of the Highlander was that it's only about 1mpg more efficient than the past model. The vehicle gained 300lbs and became more family-friendly, but the point of a hybrid should be to get great fuel economy while impacting the environment less than a comparably-sized gasoline powered vehicle. While Toyota is all alone in the seven-passenger hybrid CUV category ( GM has the larger Tahoe hybrid SUV), the folks from Aichi, Japan will need to provide more economy for the dollar when the competition finally arrives. Check out below video of Toyota's presentation on the features of the 2008 Highlander Hybrid.

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