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Wheels: Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Added power, efficiency and technological pizzazz give this SUV a needed dose of personality.

June 22, 2005; Posted: 4:24 p.m. EDT (2024 GMT)

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNN/Money staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - In the end, I was won over by the plain, simple and earnest Toyota Highlander hybrid, even if it didn't seem like my type, at first.

The Highlander, even the regular non-hybrid kind, has just one major shortcoming: It's boring. On a global scale of excitement, the Toyota Highlander ranks up there with a nice glass of room-temperature tap water.

If you want to know what it's like to drive a Highlander, think of Velveeta, the processed cheese product from Kraft. Soft, bland and a little gooey, it's neither interesting nor objectionable.

Even so, the Highlander is very popular. Few SUVs are easier to lose in a parking lot. And it has some simple, practical benefits that make it easy to understand why that's so.

The addition of gas-electric hybrid technology to the Highlander actually spices things up a little. Besides the sheer novelty of it, the Highlander Hybrid has the same 3.3-liter V6 engine as the higher-end non-hybrid versions. So the two electric motors -- or one electric motor in front-wheel drive versions -- give the hybrid an extra boost of power in addition to saving gas.

Under hard acceleration, both the electric and gasoline powerplants spring to life and push hard. Total horsepower output comes to 268 in either two- or four-wheel drive versions. That's 38 more than you get in the regular gasoline-only Highlander. Also, the electric motors produce their full allotment of torque right from the start. That means a slightly gutsier take-off.

Not that the regular Highlander is underpowered. It's not fast, but it's certainly quick enough. You can merge without fear. But the hybrid's extra boost is noticeable and nice to have.

It does come at the cost of some wicked engine noise, though. The hybrid's continuously variable transmission, which shifts gear ratios continuously rather than stepping up gear-to-gear, keeps the gasoline engine in its hardest working -- and loudest -- power range full time until you let up on the gas. It's working those pistons hard and it sounds like it.

The hybrid's handling also felt a little better to me than the regular Highlander. Now, that could have been just because, after a few days, I was getting used to the way it felt. The Highlander does have "car-like" handling, but it's not like a very good car.

Or it could have been the extra 350 pounds of the hybrid system's motors and battery packs. The extra weight is under the Highlander's body, below the vehicle's center of gravity. That would add some extra firmness and stability, which would be just what the Highlander needs.

There is a plus to that boring, boxy shape, by the way. The Highlander makes efficient use of its space, offering as much room inside as seemingly larger vehicles.

It's easy to pack and unpack, easy to park and maneuver in traffic, and it offers a comfortable amount of space for five passengers. For all of those boring, practical reasons, the vehicle ended up growing on me after a few days.

On a 225 mile round trip from New York City to Hyde Park, New York -- home of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Culinary Institute of America and, perhaps more importantly, the EveReady Diner -- we got about 28 miles per gallon. That's outstanding for a roomy V6 SUV.

According to government estimates, a four-wheel-drive Highlander Hybrid should get about 31 miles per gallon in city driving and 24 on the highway. (No, those numbers aren't backwards.) That compares to 18 and 24 miles per gallon for a four-wheel-drive non-hybrid version with the same engine. Real-world driving usually yields lower mileage than EPA estimates, so my result was surprising.

The route we took was fairly evenly divided between steady highway cruising and slower stretches through small town shopping districts. There were also more than a few pedal-to-the-metal starts as we pulled off the highway and back on again to go back and look at something we'd missed.

On the self-righteousness front, the Highlander Hybrid allowed us to creep through National Park lands without releasing any finch-gagging particulate matter. OK, it was the Vanderbilt Estate. Not exactly the Grand Tetons, but you get the idea.

With a starting price of about $33,600, the Highlander Hybrid costs about $6,000 more than a comparably equipped regular Highlander. (Comparably equipped, in this case, includes virtually useless third-row seats. You can't get the Hybrid without them. Their sole value is as a conveniently folding way to punish small children.)

That high price differential is a real shame and only some of that is due to the hybrid system itself. The rest is from extras that have no relation to the system. Unfortunately, it may keep a lot of people from experiencing the benefits of this technology.

If they're going to charge that kind of cash, they should put the word "hybrid" somewhere on the outside in letters higher than a quarter of an inch.

If I'm paying that much to help save the world, I want everybody to know it.

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