The transition from scrappy contender to defending champ can be jarring. Every move is examined under high glare, every sentence parsed. The 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid has endured some close scrutiny, along with the whole Toyota lineup. With a base price of $33,700 for the base grade and $39,950 for the Limited, the 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid comes with a 3 year/36,000 mile basic warranty, a 5 year/60,000 mile powertrain warranty, an 8 year/100,000 mile warranty on hybrid components and an EPA estimate of 27 mpg city/25 mpg highway/26 mpg combined. Let's drive.
Highlander first hit the streets as a 2001 model, Toyota's second crossover vehicle (the other being the RAV4). The first generation Highlander was cut from the 4Runner mold. It was like a smaller, cuter version of the grown-up SUV, sharing some styling cues on a smaller scale. Highlander has been available with a hybrid powertrain since the 2006 model year. Though Highlander sales have been fairly steady, the mid-size ute was due for a makeover.
For Toyota, a makeover almost always means growth in dimension, and Highlander's transformation was no exception. Wheelbase has stretched from 106.9" to 109.8"; width has expanded from 71.9" to 75.2"; overall length has grown to 188.4" from 185.6". A corresponding bloat in curb weight is unsurprising -- 2007 Highlander weighed in at 4,070 lbs (2WD)/4,245 lbs (4WD); 2008 Highlander, available in only 4WD, tips the scales at 4,508 lbs in Base trim/4,641 lbs in Limited. For those of you keeping score, that's more than enough to send even the laziest couch potato scurrying to 24 Hour Fitness and ordering up some NutriSystem.
Needless to say, Highlander looks a lot bigger than before. And that size seems amplified by a greater emphasis on angularity and muscularity. From the grille on back to the tailgate, Highlander is now obtuse where it used to be acute -- trapezoids take the place of gentle rectangles. Fenders bulge, headlights squint, and the whole vehicle clenches. I just felt like the whole package was working too hard.
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In the Driver's Seat
Growth on the exterior has resulted in a corresponding increase in interior volume. Funny how that works. There's more head, hip, shoulder and leg room in the front and middle rows. The middle row is the biggest beneficiary of largesse, with 38.4" of legroom (an increase of nearly 4" over 2007). The third row gets more hip and shoulder room than before, but has to make do with the same headroom and even less legroom than before (29.9" for 2008 vs. 30.2" for 2007). Overall interior volume is way up, but luggage space behind the third row is slightly down at a cramped 10.3 cubic feet. Cargo space behind the middle row is 42.3 cubic feet. With the middle and third rows folded down, a massive 94.1 cubic feet of cargo can be loaded into Highlander.
Highlander's dashboard design was never one of my favorites, so I welcome change. Toyota has broadened and smoothed Highlander's dash, creating a wide expanse in a single plane. The center stack is greatly simplified, with big control knobs and an intuitive layout. The Base trim level features an LCD screen that displays engine/motor performance and other information. My Base test vehicle wore the "Popular package plus" ($4,500) options package, which included the third row seat, an eight-way power driver's seat, a six-disc CD changer and other options. You have to step up to the Limited to get some of the options that I prefer, like leather seating surfaces, GPS navigation and Bluetooth. Bummer.
On the Road
All that new mass has changed Highlander's performance quite a bit. Where the previous generation felt light-footed and zippy, the new Highlander Hybrid feels more substantial and deliberate. Power is almost identical -- the 3.3 liter V6 gas engine contributes 209 hp and 212 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels. When combined with the power from the electric motors, horsepower is rated at 270 hp. Highlander Hybrid has three motors: one acts as a generator and starter for the gas engine; one drives the front wheels and one drives the rear wheels.
So, how does it all work? Under moderate acceleration, the batteries provide power to the electric engines, which drive the wheels. When more power is needed, the starter motor gets the gas engine up and running, and the gas engine takes over, with assistance from the electric motors. In normal operation, the gas engine is the primary power plant. When the SUV slows down, the gas engine shuts down, and the electric motors recover energy from the braking process. At a stop, the electric motors take care of all of the normal functions, and the gas engine remains off.
Highlander Hybrid has two buttons on the center console, one marked "EV" ("Electric Vehicle") and one marked "Economy." In theory, depressing "EV" makes the SUV run on purely electric power under certain conditions. I couldn't get my test vehicle to stay in EV mode for more than a few seconds, no matter how gently I depressed the throttle. Selecting "Economy" didn't seem to have any visible effect, other than a lit indicator on the instrument panel.
To be entirely fair to Toyota, my test vehicle was clearly labeled as a pre-production prototype, and some of the operational quirks with EV mode might be ironed out in the production version. Based on my previous experience with Toyota vehicles, I'd fully expect smooth operation.
What Toyota will not be able to iron out is Highlander's price. My test vehicle as equipped would price out at over $38,000; a Limited trim level with GPS navigation can easily reach over $46,000 with options. That's quite a premium over the Base gas-only Highlander, which starts at about $27,000.
If you're considering a Highlander Hybrid, there's good news -- there are several competitive hybrid SUVs to compare in the marketplace. Ford's Escape Hybrid and its clones, the Mercury Mariner Hybrid and Mazda Tribute Hybrid, offer even better fuel economy than Highlander Hybrid and lower purchase price. Saturn's Vue Green Line is a mild hybrid that lowers the cost of entry even more. Lexus's RX400h raises the luxury bar, and does it with more elegance than Highlander (at an increased price, of course). If you need a honking ginormous hybrid SUV, take a look at the Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid/GMC Yukon Hybrid full-size SUVs. You might also want to consider gas-only alternatives, like the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, which are fuel efficient and quite capable.
If only a hybrid will do, and you must have Toyota quality, Highlander Hybrid is your chariot of choice. For me, though, bigger isn't necessarily better -- I'd rather have a left-over 2007 or a used 2006 Highlander Hybrid in my driveway.