Highlander is nicely proportioned, with a tall greenhouse and a square-ish body. If you squint you can see the 4Runner and Sequoia hiding in the styling. Highlander manages to look elegant and refined without losing all of its off-road credibility, though few Highlanders will ever actually leave the pavement. The Highlander Hybrid Limited is a nice-looking vehicle that will definitely benefit from its scheduled refreshing for the 2008 model year.
You've got to get into the driver's seat or dive under the hood to see the real differences between the conventional gas-powered Highlander and the Hybrid.
In the Driver's Seat
Highlander doesn't hit you over the head with its Hybrid. The instrument panel looks totally ordinary at first glance, until you notice that your tachometer has been replaced with a Watt meter. You can set up the screen on your nav system to display the status of your hybrid system, from state of charge to fuel consumption -- or you can just drive. The most extraordinary thing about Highlander's hybrid system is that it is totally ordinary and transparent. The vehicle is so quiet and well-insulated when the gas engine is idling that you can barely hear or feel it, so when it cycles off at a stoplight, you hardly notice the difference.
On the Road
Traditional automotive transmissions use discrete gears to transmit the engine's power to the driveshaft. Most of the time, your transmission is managing a compromise between revolutions per minute (RPM) and power, changing gears to keep RPMs as close to the engine's ideal power range as possible depending on your vehicle's speed. When you drive a manual transmission, you choose the shift points yourself. An automatic transmission does the same thing for you behind the scenes, stepping through the gears one at a time.
A CVT doesn't have traditional gears, it has belts and pulleys, and through the magic of engineering, a CVT can keep the engine at its ideal RPM level without the compromise of stair stepping through gears. The result is smoother power delivery, greater efficiency and a car that's more responsive at any speed. Expect to see CVT technology in more cars and SUVS in the future.
Highlander's CVT works seamlessly and takes the 268 hp and 212 lb-ft of torque that the 3.3 liter V6 engine and electric motor crank out together and puts them to good use.
If, on the other hand, you're looking for a near-luxury crossover with the latest technology in a handy-dandy package, this Highlander may be for you. It lives up to Toyota's reputation for high quality, with excellent fit and finish inside and out, and a generally solid feel top to bottom. It's more fun to drive than the gas-only Highlander V6, and it gets better mileage to boot. You can haul seven passengers for short distances, assuming that at least two of your passengers are small or very limber -- that third row is a little tight to get to for full-sized adults of a certain age (like me).
You should look beyond Highlander before you settle there -- drive the Ford Escape/Mercury Mariner/Mazda Tribute hybrids, and take a spin in the Saturn Vue Green Line when it is available. Look at the Lexus RX 400h for a more luxurious treatment of the subject.
Who knows -- Highlander Hybrid could be all the rage you need.