Toyota Highlander Hybrid, lots of bucks for the bang

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Hybrid vehicle strategy has changed at Toyota and Honda. And the Japanese automakers are selling hybrids — vehicles with a gas engine and an electric motor — as fast as they can make them.

Honda and Toyota have made the hybrid attractive with scads of power and many upscale amenities as part of the standard equipment package.

The first hybrids — the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight — were small economy cars with the usual standard features such as air conditioning, stereo and power windows and doorlocks. But their chief trait certainly was not luxury. They were fuel efficient and environmentally friendly.

Hybridization — making two power sources that work together through a highly developed computer system and a costly battery pack — is expensive. Toyota absorbed much of the extra cost with its first Prius in 2000.

But some of the cost is now being passed on to the consumer making a hybrid vehicle 10 to 20 percent more expensive than a comparable gas-powered model.

The extra cost makes it hard to justify a hybrid purchase unless you keep it for many years or drive an extraordinarily large number of miles. Gas prices simply aren’t high enough, even at $3 per gallon — and the just-passed income tax credit big enough — to offset an extra outlay of $4,000 to $8,000.

But now Toyota is offering something more for your money. It has introduced the Lexus RX400h and its cousin, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, with extra standard equipment, and with a V-6 engine. The 6-cylinders, combined with electric motors, offer acceleration better than the standard V-6 model. And that’s the story – more performance, something people are willing to pay more for.

Actually it’s a combination — more power, more standard features, somewhat better fuel economy and an environmentally friendly attitude — things that will sell these vehicles even at a higher price.

We drove the Highlander Hybrid for a week and found it to be a stellar car-based sport utility.

It is powerful. Toyota says it will leap from a standstill to 60 miles per hour in 7.5 seconds. That’s fast for a sport utility. But by our seat-of-the-pants observation, Toyota’s number is conservative.

It is quiet. You would expect a vehicle that can hit 40 gran
d to be the epitome of silence if it carries a Toyota or Lexus name. And the Highlander lives up to the reputation. It has superb build quality – something that’s a given in most Toyota products.

We’ve liked the Highlander since its inception a few years ago, and we like the hybrid, as well. But we are still a bit queasy about the cost. Even with the “no-cost” extras — about a $3,200 value in the top-of-the-line Limited — you will still pay about $5,000 more than for a standard V-6 Limited.

If you live by numbers, the Highlander Hybrid numbers are good compared to other mid-sized car-based sport utilities.

It can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 7.5-seconds; attain a gas mileage rating of 31 city and 27 highway (providing you don’t do too many 0-to-60 runs) and tow up to 3,500 pounds. That’s a combination that should keep Highlander off the lips of the anti-SUV crowd.

This stellar performance is provided by a recalibrated 3.3-liter V-6 that makes 208 horsepower and an electric motor that generates 167 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque for an effective horsepower rating of 268.

A second electric motor is used to start the gas engine and recharge the 288-volt battery pack. All-wheel drive models get a third electric motor that can send extra power to the rear wheels if traction is needed. All this power is directed through a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). 

For the cost conscience, the hybrid system is identical to the one found in the Lexus RX400h, but for a few thousand less. If the status of a name doesn’t mean that much to you, definitely opt for the Highlander.

The interior is quiet and features easy-to-use switchgear that is placed where you expect it to be. Gauges are clear.

One footnote, if you decide to get navigation — the only option on the Limited model — the stereo and climate controls come bundled in the navigation screen. The trend of putting controls on a screen is not a good one, but the Toyota’s setup is about as easy to operate as any.

We wish manufacturers would leave the navigation screen for navigation, and keep the climate and stereo controls outside the box. One extra feature with the nav screen on the Highlander Hybrid is a power flow chart and fuel economy meter that is fun and informative to look at occasionally.

The front seating is comfortable and ease of entry and exit is nearly perfect. There’s no stepping up into the Highlander.

The Highlander comes with a standard third row seat. It’s an option on the gas model. But the third row is not spacious enough for use by anyone over the age of 12. The second row, however, makes a nice perch for two adult passengers. If the third row is kept out of sight, storage is excellent.

Toyota is generous with safety features including front-seat side airbags, first- and second-row head curtain airbags, antilock brakes with BrakeAssist and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, traction control and stability control.

The Hybrid comes in just two trim levels, base and Limited, starting at $33,595 for 2-wheel drive. Standard features on all models include power driver’s seat, six-speaker stereo with CD player, 17-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, and a full array of power equipment. All-wheel drive starts at $34,995.

Limited models start at $38,455 for 2-wheel drive and $39,855 for all-wheel drive. Our loaded test vehicle with navigation carried a sticker price of $41,855.

For those concerned about the hybrid components, they carry a warranty for eight years or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first. Cost estimates for a replacement battery pack are in the $5000 range.

If you don’t mind the price and want a performance-oriented sport utility capable of delivering 30 miles to the gallon on black liquid gold, then the Highlander is a can’t miss.