Test Drive: Toyota Highlander Hybrid

We planned on spending a few days on the Oregon coast, and thought it might be a good time to try out the Toyota Highlander Hybrid.

We reasoned — it?s a hybrid, so it should get good fuel economy and it?s a four-wheel drive, which was good in case it snowed; plus it is roomy and comfortable.

Several hundred miles later in the Highlander Hybrid we determined our reasoning was right on target, in fact the Toyota Hybrid turned out to be much better than we had ?reasoned?.

For 2011, Toyota equipped the Highlander hybrid with a new 231 horsepower 3.5-liter V-6.? Combined with a high-torque electric motor-generator the system has an equivalent 280-hp. ?The combination produces a 0 to 60 mph time of 7.4 seconds and an EPA fuel economy rating of 28 mpg city and 28 mpg highway.? On our coastal trip, we averaged 26.8 mph driving quickly and even making several full throttle passes on the two lane road. ?The passing power and acceleration was outstanding; more like a V-8 than a hybrid.

The Hybrid has some interesting other features, too.? For example, the EV mode, which is activated by a switch located on the center console, allows the driver to motor silently over a short range and at a low speeds — under 30 mph. There is also a new ECON mode which changes the throttle controls to reduce response during acceleration, thereby improving fuel economy.

The Hybrid is laden with all the important safety acronyms ? VDIM, VSC, TRAC, BA, EPS, EBD, ABS, ETC-I, ECB and DAC.? Many of the systems help protect the driver against him or herself by enhancing handling, traction and braking. ?All the Highlander models even have a corner-braking feature that integrates several of these systems to improve control through a turn.? The Highlander has the DAC (Downhill Assist Control) that will maintain a constant speed and control when descending a steep hill.? Going up, the hill start assist keeps the vehicle from rolling back by holding the Highlander for two seconds after the driver?s foot comes off the brake.

The Highlander four-wheel drive system is non-traditional.? There is no driveshaft, power-transfer gearing or buttons to push.? When four-wheel drive is needed, the 4WD-i system automatically transfers power to the rear wheels, which are driven by a second electric motor. The system automatically varies the torque between the front and rear wheels to provide power to the wheels with the best traction.? The rear motor generator also charges the batteries during braking and coasting conditions.

To visually distinguish the Hybrid from the gas Highlander, look for a different grille and bumper on the hybrid.? The hybrid bumper is higher and upper grille has one air inlet, while the gas model has three.? It also has color-keyed rockers panels with chrome accents, plus vertically stacked fog lamps. The projector beam headlights, daytime running lights and the taillights have new blue lens covers.? Then, just to make sure everyone else knows you are being ecologically responsible, there is hybrid badging on the front fenders and rear lift gate, too.

The Hybrid comes in two trim levels, base and the Limited.? The gas version has three levels and either a four-cylinder or V-6 engine.? Our $38,300, including the destination charge, test vehicle was the base model Hybrid, but you certainly wouldn?t know it with the extensive standard equipment and the $4,329 list of options. The additions included features like 19-inch alloy wheels, a leather package (which included Bluetooth, hands-free phone controls, moonroof, alarm and HomeLink in addition to the leather seats) and a power rear liftgate.

The Highlander Limited Hybrid, priced at $43,955, includes most of the features that were optional on the base model we drove (leather, big wheels, moonroof, etc.) along with several cosmetic and convenience additions. With all the options, including navigation, the Limited Hybrid can go as high as $48,585.? Gasoline versions start at $28,350 for the four-cylinder, front-wheel drive and go as high as $37,305 for the 4WD Limited V-6.

For someone who wants a spacious and comfortable crossover-style vehicle that has strong performance with very good fuel economy, the Toyota Highlander would be an excellent choice.


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