When it comes to hybrid-electric vehicles, there's really only one automaker who's figured them out — Toyota. While others may have produced prototypes and even production cars — most notably Honda, which was first to bring a hybrid to America, though hardly the first to make one — none managed to make hybrid-electric powerplants more efficient than, say, a similarly sized gasoline engine with a CVT, lightweight body, and the many other tricks and technologies used to get high mileage out of the Insight, Civic hybrid, and, yes, the Prius. Toyota has actually managed to overcome the extra weight of having a second engine and battery with the regenerative brakes and automatic engine shutoff, and at the same time, has made its hybrids about as clean-burning as a gas-burning car can be.
One thing is for sure: with the Highlander, Toyota should dispel the myth that hybrid-electric cars are slow, or that you need to get poor mileage to get speed. The capacious Highlander goes from zero to sixty in just under eight seconds, considerably faster than a stick-shift Honda Civic EX. Instant power is always on tap on the highway, with the torquey electric motor kicking in instantly, though there's often a brief delay when poking out into traffic from a dead stop. On the whole, the Highlander Hybrid is quite the rocket.
The first impression a driver gets of the Highlander Hybrid, outside of its luxurious looking interior (and perhaps the sole hybrid badge on the rear), is the quietness when the key is turned. On turning the key, often nothing happens until you engage the transmission. Then the car moves silently until the engine bumps on. Sometimes, the engine goes on after a few seconds regardless, even in Park; sometimes, you can be going over ten miles per hour. The computer must know best, because its patterns of behavior seem unpredictable to the average person. Incorporated in its thoughts are gas mileage, power, heat, battery level, emissions, and Heaven only knows what else.
When the engine comes on, which usually takes just about no time at all, it sometimes does it with a little bump; and when it goes off, sometimes it bumps a little there, too, but generally, the transitions are minor unless you're looking for them. And it is nice to wait at a long light with the engine off - and then have it come right back on when needed.
While the first hybrids were vehicles that got exceptionally good mileage, the biggest culprits in America's gas guzzling are trucks, not cars — and big trucks at that. The first hybrids brought to market by the Big Three (not very aptly named now that Toyota out-sells Chrysler) were all trucks: the Chevrolet Silverado, Dodge Ram, and Ford Escape. (The Escape uses Toyota technology under license, making it a rebadged Mazda with Toyota engineering). To that group, Toyota added the Highlander, a fairly large people carrier with three rows of seats and considerable comfort — and 33 miles per gallon in the city, according to the EPA (two wheel drive). We managed to beat 30 mpg without half trying; on the highway, we maintained about 22-25 at relatively fast speeds. Highway mileage is rated at 28, but don't expect that unless, like the EPA, you drive at a steady 55 on the highway with the air conditioner off. Still, let's keep in mind that most mid-sized sedans would be lucky to get this many miles out of a gallon; the average mid-sized SUV owner probably feels happy with 25 on the highway and 20 in the city, while minivans tend to get 20-23 mpg in mixed driving.
Gas mileage for the Highlander is definitely higher in the city, where the electric motor can have a major impact, and where acceleration is not generally strenuous or fast. A light touch on the pedal is rewarded in any case, but in the city, it can result in actually achieving the EPA estimates, a rarity for any type of vehicle. Short trips can quickly demolish any semblance of economy, as the engine takes a while to reach peak efficiency; we'd guess there's a tradeoff between gas mileage and pollution somewhere in the mix (the Highlander Hybrid is a super ultra low emission vehicle, or SULEV). In any case, the Highlander Hybrid truly shines if you tend to drive in stop and go or city/suburban traffic in relatively long trips (over ten minutes long). Then, think about getting over 30 mpg in comfort, in a full-sized vehicle, versus getting 20 mpg in a similar gas-powered vehicle, 15 in a truck-based SUV, or even 20-22 in a sedan.
Those who want a standard gas engine that gets better mileage should be interested in the 2.7 liter four cylinder brought out in 2009; it generates a V6-like 187 horsepower at 5,800 RPM and 186 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,100 RPM on regular fuel. A dual exhaust manifold helps low-end torque. The ULEV engine pushes power through a six-speed automatic transmission and, with a towing package, can pull 3,500 pounds. It will come standard on two wheel drive models. Highlander is also available in a relatively thrifty 3.5 liter V6 form.
There are many people who will notice that highway mileage doesn't match the city mileage, and who will point out that you can, in real life, do nearly as well in a minivan or do even better in a small car like the Corolla. Well, that's true, but irrelevant. Comparing apples to apples, the Highlander's hybrid system is an excellent way to get manual-transmission economy-car mileage out of an automatic-transmission tall wagon - with four wheel drive as an option. Even on the highway, mileage is better than usual for this type of vehicle, and comparable to full-sized sedans on their good days.
One big question is how Toyota succeeded where others, including Honda and Ford (before they rented Toyota patents), failed. The answer is probably in the mix of methods Toyota uses. First, they make the gas engine as efficient as possible by keeping it at a steady speed, varying the transmission's gear ratios and using the electric motor to make up for momentary variations wheverever possible. Second, they regenerate power from the brakes and while coasting. Third, as with the others, they make the vehicle lighter where possible to compensate for the extra weight of the motor and battery. Fourth, they take computer controls to a high level. One interesting discovery is how often the gas engine stays on; in most driving, the gas engine and not the electrical motor is used, unless the foot is very light on the throttle (or off entirely). The system makes judicious use of both modes of power, using electrical largely for very light throttle movement, for taking off and starting the gas engine, and for momentary power boosts.
For more on the technical aspects of the system, see our Prius page.
Driving the Highlander is not unlike driving a regular car; they dispensed with the Prius' odd shifter, using a standard-looking gearshift (but with continuously-variable controls). The main visible differences are the power displays, which can be shut off, and the electric motor indicator taking the place of a tachometer. The reason for the latter seems fairly clear: customers would probably be a bit freaked out by a tachometer whose needle tended to stay right in place as the car accelerated and slowed, while the electric gauge shows the boost from the motor, showing off, so to speak. The electric boost varies from nothing to 200 kW, according to the gauge.
In a departure from the Prius, you can get the Highlander without the navigation system/power display in center, so there is a smaller power display under the odometer (this can be easily changed to show different information). That might actually be a good idea, though Toyota's large-screen navigation system is very good and easy to use. The Toyota touch-screen display makes many operations easier and covers quite a bit of ground, though many streets are not labelled often enough and at useful levels of magnification, smaller streets disappear completely. The problem comes when you try to make adjustments to the stereo or climate control; while the system is a good enough compromise, with key buttons remaining physical, changing bass or treble requires a few button pushes and taking eyes off the road (as does watching the clever gas-mileage display; for more on that, see our Prius review). The driver who wants to avoid distraction and quickly adjust stereo and climate controls should probably save a thousand dollars and go with the standard units. Unfortunately, that also means losing the average gas mileage display (the odometer readout only provides instant mileage).
Of course, there's more to a car than the powertrain and navigation system. The Highlander's expensive-looking interior has many surprises, including a two-level center console; the bottom is reached through the sides, and is a convenient place for a full-sized box of tissues. The center console also includes, on the top level, dual cupholders, an ashtray, and a large compartment which neatly opens at the press of a button and closes nearly as easily; it's much easier to use and more accessible than the standard "flip-top" compartments. Front doors have map holders, while map pockets are built into the backs of the front seats; rear passengers get cupholders on their doors as well as a center console with storage and more cupholders. A sunglass holder is overhead. (Our observations all apply to the Limited model which is the only one we tested.)
Instrumentation is limited to the speedometer, gas and temperature gauges, and the aforementioned power-output gauge. The odometer readout can be switched to show outside temp, current mileage, hybrid system status (though it's often inaccurate), and just the odometer itself. Major controls are backlit, though the radio lights are so dim as to be unseen at light.
Generally, controls made sense, except that the backlighting control knob is awkwardly sticking out of the gauges, so to reach it you have to reach through the steering wheel; and the rear heat button is oddly placed on the dashboard to the left of the wheel, and gives no indication of its status (on or off). We also had to wonder about the placement of the audio button all the way on the middle-right of the navigation system rather than being near the stereo itself; but the climate control takes up all the bottom row of buttons (to adjust the fan, by the way, you have to go through the nav system again). Audio controls are duplicated on the steering wheel; and there are knobs for power and tuning, and for selecting the mode. It would have been far more convenient to have a push-to-adjust system using the tune knob for setting bass and treble as well as having to press AUDIO, then SOUND on the touch screen, then up or down for bass and treble.
Visibility is very good in all directions, with only the smallest of blind spots in the back; folding mirrors are fairly large. Headlights are powerful, and the sun visors have sliding inserts to increase their coverage. Our minor complaints concern the automatic rear-view mirror, which like most of its kind does not dim enough, and the daytime running lights, which like General Motors' older models keeps the bright lights on at fairly high strength to blind and annoy oncoming traffic.
Our Limited model included faux wood trim in addition to dull silver, gray, and black plastic, with no massive expanses of plain textured plastic. The interior is generally expensive looking and tightly assembled, as it should be at this price; front seats come with fold-down armrests which are good for comfort and also for gripping around tight turns. The Highlander is also at a good height, easy to get into and out of, and easy to see out of, not too high or too low. Cargo capacity is good, and all seats have substantial leg and head room. The third row of seats is good for small kids on brief rides; it unfolds and folds back in easily.
Cornering is as one would expect from a car-based vehicle; that is, the Highlander feels light and nimble on its feet, though it's hardly a sports car (being based on the Camry). It certainly handles anything a normal driver is likely to throw at it with no problem. The electrical steering system is by no means intrusive; it acts just like a normal hydraulic system, except that it works fine with the engine off.
The ride on the front-wheel-drive version is very comfortable on city streets, but can be a little busy on some surfaces and highways. Road noise is generally very low, and the engine is well muffled except under heavy throttle, when it gives a dull roar; under normal conditions it is barely audible and makes itself known only through vibration, which is by no means excessive. Generally, we commend the balance ride and handling on the Highlander; it seems perfect for its audience.
The Highlander Hybrid competes well against normal SUVs, with a sophisticated four-wheel drive system available that makes good use of the electric motors, strong acceleration from a stop or from highway speeds, and the best gas mileage you're likely to find in a vehicle of this size — at least until more sophisticated diesels start showing up. The interior is easily larger than, say, a Grand Cherokee, Commander, or LR3, and while off-roading is a big question mark - the Highlander is probably not rugged enough to run many trails, but should be fine under dirt-road and snow conditions - that's true for many truck-based SUVs, too. While the price is steep compared with minivans (which offer similar or more space), it is quite reasonable compared with a Ford Expedition, Lincoln Navigator, or well-equipped Chevrolet Suburban and Cadillac Escalade; and for most buyers, it is much more practical and usable as well. Compared with car-based SUVs, the Highlander is roughly in line with the Volvo SUVs in price, though more than Subarus or Dodges (in particular the Magnum), but again gas mileage for those who take relatively long trips in city-style traffic is far superior.
Some people are concerned about various hybrid issues, including system reliability and battery failures. It does appear that these vehicles should be good for ten years, that batteries are expensive but fairly long-lasting, and the hybrid system has been around for long enough that we can say with some confidence that Toyota knows how to build them. Indeed, Toyota-hybrid cars have generally gotten better reliability ratings than most gas powered vehicles.
Our Highlander Limited came with safety features including stability and traction control, antilock brakes with “brake assist (it helps out on panic stops),” and side mounted airbags for the first and second rows of seats (roll-sensing). Also standard on the Limited are power mirrors, mudguards, LED tail-lights that go on very quickly and use less power than bulbs, a power moonroof, fog lights to annoy other drivers with, filtered air conditioning, leather and heated front seats, a JBL premium stereo that sounded great in front and in back (thanks to eight speakers), power locks and windows, cruise, tilt wheel, and keyless entry. The list price with destination is a hair below $40,000, but our vehicle had the $2,000 touch-screen navigation system and the $200 carpet / cargo mat set, so it balanced the scales at $42,054. The base model starts at $33,030 (add $1,440 to get four wheel drive), while the base Limited starts at $37,890, so on our particular model, the hybrid system cost less than an extra $2,000 — that is, less than the navigation system. If you get the hybrid option with the four wheel drive model, Toyota provides a third motor/generator that increases traction in some conditions.
Incidentally, while the Ford Escape (built on a Mazda platform with Toyota hybrid technology) is slightly better in gas mileage, the engine is a meager 155 horsepower, compared with the Highlander’s whopping 268 hp. There's something to be said for that - as well as the 3,500 pound towing capacity (the “Ford” can tow 1,000 pounds). Maybe that’s why Toyota is planning to sell 45,000 Highlander hybrids in 2006, while Ford only plans on making 22,000 Escapes and Mariners.
If you are looking at the Highlander, the hybrid option costs a couple to a few thousand dollars more, but it comes with a cool geek factor, much less pollution, and, by the way, good gas mileage and faster acceleration. Given that people often pay thousands more just for the added power, the price of the hybrid system is quite reasonable; it gives the power of a bigger engine, and saves gasoline as well. On just about any terms, this vehicle is a good deal compared with the Volvo Cross Country, Ford Escape, Mazda Tribute, and any number of other SUV-form-factor contenders. For those who plan on using it just for highway driving, or for numerous short trips, gas mileage will be disappointing; but for those who tend to go on longer trips in suburban or urban traffic, the increase in gas mileage, more efficient burning of fuel, and general comfort are quite attractive.