In the AutoblogGreen Garage: 2008 Toyota Highlander hybrid

Click the Highlander for a high-res gallery

Toyota unveiled the second generation of their Highlander crossover last February at the Chicago Auto Show and it followed the all too familiar pattern of bigger, wider, heavier. Fortunately it didn't grow a whole size class the way some vehicles have. The conventional version of the Highlander went on sale during the summer while the hybrid launched in late October. Recently a new Highlander hybrid in the up-market Limited trim turned up in the AutoblogGreen garage just in time to provide transport to a string of holiday parties in Detroit.

The Highlander is the largest crossover in the Toyota lineup, almost matching the dimensions of the body-on-frame 4Runner. Unlike the 4Runner, the Highlander is a unibody configuration with a transverse mounted engine. The default configuration is front-wheel-drive but the test example had drive to all four wheels in combination with Toyota's hybrid synergy drive system. Read on after the jump to find out what the new Highlander is like to live with.
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Like the original Highlander, the new one is derived from the Camry platform, this time the latest generation that debuted in 2006. Compared to the first-generation model, the new Highlander is 3 inches longer, 4 inches wider and 1 inch taller with a 3 inch longer wheelbase. All that adds up to 400 lbs of additional mass to cart around. The Highlander's closest competitor in terms of size and capacity is the Hyundai Veracruz which doesn't yet offer either a hybrid or diesel version although Hyundai has indicated they will offer the latter in a couple of years. Among domestics, the General Motors Lambda crossovers are over a foot longer than the Highlander and another 400 lbs heftier while the Ford Edge is 3 inches shorter and only has two rows of seats.
Stylistically, the new crossover is a major departure from its predecessor. The old Highlander had a very bland, boxy look that could easily get lost in a crowd. The new iteration has a more distinct, muscular look with more surface development. The overall look now has more of a family resemblance to its larger body-on-frame siblings the Sequoia and Land Cruiser. The extra size does add room for a third row of seats although, compared to it's Korean and American competitors, the third row is definitely a tighter squeeze, especially for grown ups. A low seat mounting means that adults in the back row will have a knees up seating position. The seat cushion itself sits on top of the high-voltage nickel metal hydride battery for the hybrid system.
Head and shoulder room out back are OK as is leg room thanks to the second row seats that can adjust fore and aft. Overall though, grownups will only want to ride in the back for short trips. That short trip limitation is probably a good thing because there isn't much space left behind the last seat for carrying gear for a road trip. With the seat up there's a rather spare 10.3 cu.ft between the tailgate and seat back. if you don't need the extra people capacity, a tug on the strap at the top of the rear seat allows the head rests to flip down and the seat back folds down providing a flat load floor. With the final row tucked away there's a more SUV-like 42.3 cu.ft of cargo capacity.

Climbing in up front the Highlander is a bit of a mixed bag. The tight confines of the third row give way to ample room for five passengers in the first two rows. Visually the dashboard looks attractive enough and the plastic surfaces appear to be of a reasonably high quality. However, that impression ends when you touch the dashboard surface. All the plastic surfaces in the Highlander (aside from the armrests) are hard plastic with no padding. It certainly doesn't have the dollar store look of the Jeep Grand Cherokee, but it's not what you might expect in a $48,000 vehicle. Fortunately the wood trim on the door pulls and center console are of much higher quality level than the plastics. The gauge cluster was wonderfully clear and legible bright white text and blue accents. The tachometer is replaced in the left hand pod by a power gauge that indicates the power in kW going to the road or coming back to the battery during regenerative braking.

The test unit came loaded with every option on the list including the satellite navigation system, rear seat entertainment system, moon-roof and automatic dual zone climate control system. Even the second row gets its own automatic climate control system. The seats and steering wheel are covered in leather and both of the first two rows have thermal enhancement for the occupants hind quarters. The center stack features two LCD screens. The larger touch screen unit in the center of the stack incorporates the navigation system, energy monitor, and assorted auxiliary information. A second smaller screen allows monitoring of fuel economy, clock, temperature and other information even while the navigation system is in use.

Unfortunately the front seats offer little in the way of of lateral support and as is too often the case the bottom cushions are too short. The steering wheel rim is also a bit too skinny for a comfortable grip. Thankfully the vehicle responses to the steering wheel inputs are much better the Saturn Outlook I drove last spring. The 5,000 lb Outlook felt ponderous in its dynamic responses even compared to the heavier Chevy Tahoe. In spite of its heft and height, the Highlander feels more responsive than the Saturn although not quite as good as the Grand Cherokee. The Toyota's ride and damping were excellent and it never felt floaty.

One area where the Highlander was vastly superior to other recent Toyotas was the braking and slip control system. The brake pedal feel was good and braking force was easily modulated. Compared to the new Tundra pickup truck, the ABS hydraulic control unit was quieter and the feedback through the brake pedal was more subdued. One of the most annoying aspects of driving the Tundra was the steering wheel jerking around when the electronic stability control was activated. The Highlander exhibited none of this behavior and the ESC was much smoother than in either the Tundra or the 2008 Scion xB.

Of course the reason the Highlander was in the ABG garage in the first place was the drive-train. As with the first Highlander, this one is equipped with the Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive system. For 2008, all Highlanders get V-6 engines, the base four cylinder no longer capable of hauling the extra weight. Given that the Highlander is derived from the Camry platform, the V-6 engines are all transverse mounted with drive going through the hybrid transmission to the front wheels. Limited models like the one in our garage add a second electric motor at the rear axle to drive those wheels when needed for extra acceleration or in slippery conditions.

When the Highlander was announced in Chicago, Toyota made sure to point out that this was the first US market hybrid with an EV mode button. Priuses in Japan have long had this button that forces the vehicle to operate in electric only mode at low speeds. Depending on the battery state of charge, the Highlander can operate for about a mile at speeds up to 30 mph in EV mode. Next to the EV button on the center console is another marked ECON, that biases performance more toward electric drive for better fuel economy. During the time I drove the vehicle I periodically switched the ECON button on and off and the difference in acceleration performance was noticeable. Watching the fuel economy gauge, the ECON mode appeared to be good for about 1-2mpg extra.

The hybrid power-train in the Highlander operates more smoothly than some other examples that have been evaluated in the AutoblogGreen Garage. The automatic start-stop of the engine was smoother than either the Saturn Aura or the Nissan Altima hybrids although not as seamlessly as the Two-Mode Hybrid Chevy Tahoe. One weak spot in the driving experience comes during low speed driving as the vehicle comes to a stop. The blending of regenerative and friction braking is pretty seamless and consistent throughout braking but at about 3-4 mph the deceleration suddenly increases and the vehicle pitches forward a bit.

The combined output of the 3.3L V-6 and electric motors is 270hp and 212lb-ft of torque. The power is on a par with gas-engined competitors like the Outlook and Veracruz and considerably better than the 4Runner. The torque, however, is on the weak side and lags behind the others. The 3,500 lb towing capacity matches the Veracruz but trails the Outlook and 4Runner which are rated at 4,500 and 5,000 lbs respectively. Where the Highlander really shines is in fuel economy, not so much in absolute terms but compared to similar vehicles.

The Edge, Outlook and Veracruz all have EPA combined ratings of 18mpg. When I tested an Outlook earlier in the year it averaged just over 17mpg. The Highlander managed a little over 22mpg which is well shy of the 26mpg (BTW, all EPA numbers are 2008 figures) but far better than others I've tested. It also beats the 19mpg from the Grand Cherokee diesel although that one used a full time four wheel drive system and and tires tuned more for off-road performance. If you really want a crossover and crave better mileage, the Ford Escape hybrid got over 30mpg during our test, but it's a much smaller vehicle.

As usual a price must be paid for the additional utility of such a vehicle. That includes both the operating cost and up-front purchase price. This loaded AWD Limited ran $48,000 although a base AWD can be had for $40,000 and the FWD model starts at $33,700. If you need more interior space or more towing capability, a step up to the Chevy Tahoe hybrid might be in order. It considerably larger but the even the four wheel drive edition is rated at the 20mpg and all indications are that beating the EPA numbers in the real world is not uncommon. The base price of the Tahoe is about $4,000 more than the loaded Highlander but much of the same equipment is standard. We'll be finding out for ourselves in the near future. In the meantime, the Highlander is definitely the most efficient of the mid-large crossovers and provides good utility for those who need ample space for five plus two on occasion.

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