For 2008 the Highlander has received a full-tilt redesign. A car-based SUV, the Highlander plays centerfield in Toyota's midsize SUV lineup along with fellow outfielders 4Runner and FJ Cruiser. Targeting families that need to carry cargo with the option to expand to seven-passenger capacity at a moment's notice, the Highlander Hybrid is part of Toyota's three-vehicle strategy that includes the Camry Hybrid and Prius.
The all-new, second-generation Highlander Hybrid is bigger inside and out. Built on the Camry/Avalon chassis, the '08 version is four inches longer and three inches wider than the model it replaces. Outside, crisp lines and muscular contours set the tone. Inside, the dash layout, materials and fit-and-finish are excellent, and the Highlander provides a commanding driving position that makes SUVs a trusted companion on the road.
All Highlander Hybrid models sport all-wheel drive and are available in Base and Limited trim levels. Limited models come with a sport-tuned suspension, 19-inch rolling stock, rear back-up camera, fog lights, a 3.5-inch multi-function display, and a satisfying level of standard convenience and luxury amenities.
The Highlander Hybrid features a 3.3-liter V6 as part of Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system. This system includes a high-torque electric motor/generator working in tandem with the gasoline engine to improve fuel economy and reduce emissions.
In stop-and-go situations the electric module alone powers the vehicle. But if throttle input spikes, or speeds reach a predetermined threshold, the gasoline engine kicks in and the vehicle is propelled by a combination of the two systems. Power is routed through a five-speed automatic transmission.
On the Road
Our Highlander Hybrid Limited was outfitted with Toyota's Smart Entry System that automatically unlocks the driver's door when the vehicle senses the key fob. Auto Start was also part of the program. There is no key or ignition switch. It was almost eerie to push a start button with the same icon as many modern electrical devices and hear the hum of the hybrid system come online. No varrooom. It was more like starting a Dell than a Toyota.
Once on the road, the Hybrid Synergy Drive is transparent and the Highlander Hybrid carries on like any other vehicle. When you jump on the throttle, the hybrid system delivers ample power with both the gasoline and electric motors contributing. The ride is silky smooth as the vehicle's wide stance, low-profile tires, and responsive steering deliver firm and steady feedback and a high level of confidence.
We were surprised with the roominess inside, especially for third-row passengers, who made little consolation in terms of ingress, egress, and overall comfort. The Highlander Hybrid was quite flexible, easily morphing to accommodate different passenger/cargo needs, while providing outstanding long-distance comfort.
Most of our time with the Highlander Hybrid was on the open highway, where it is least efficient. Rated at 27-mpg city and 25-mpg highway, hybrids typically get better mileage around town, because that environment makes better use of the electric motor.
On the highway, the gasoline engine is required to maintain cruising speeds. If you prowl the city commuting or running errands, the hybrid version offers a 58-percent gain in fuel economy over a standard gasoline-engined Highlander, which manages only 17-mpg city.
What Price for Efficiency?
Highlander pricing hierarchy on the gasoline side of the ledger starts with the Base trim at $27,300, Sport at $29,950 and Limited at $32,700. Hybrid versions start at $33,700, while the Hybrid Limited checks in at $39,950. Our tester, adorned with a few options - the most prominent being a voice-activated navigation system - had a bottom line of $43,513.
In 2005 the Highlander became the first seven-passenger hybrid. The all-new 2008 model keeps the ball rolling with added refinement, safety and luxury features. The Highlander is a best of both worlds solution for forward-thinking families that want the eco-friendliness of a Prius with additional cargo and passenger space.
Evan Griffey served as an editor of Turbo & High Tech Performance, a pioneering publication about sport-compact tuning. Today Griffey freelances for Import Tuner, Sport Compact Car, Car Audio and Siphon.