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2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid overview

June 3, 2005 09:59 AM EST | SUV's , Toyota | Email to Friend

View large imageThe seven-passenger Highlander Hybrid doesn't force you to make uncomfy compromises to stand up for the environment. It's just like a regular Highlander right down to its no-fuss handling, simple cabin design and 81 cubic feet of cargo capacity. But it is more powerful. And it does get better fuel economy.

To make the hybrid version, Toyota started with the 3.3-liter V6 in the standard Highlander, recalibrated it for duty in a hybrid and installed three electric motors (two on front-drive models). One of the motors is responsible for starting the gas engine and recharging the 288-volt battery pack. Another teams up with the V6 to drive the front wheels via a continuously variable transmission. The third motor, present only on all-wheel-drive models, can juice the rear wheels when extra power or traction is needed. For a complete explanation of this sophisticated drivetrain, see our tech sidebar.

One gas engine and three electric motors may sound like an overly complex setup even for a hybrid SUV, but from the driver seat, it's all seamless. Well, for the most part. There's no "start" button as in the Prius, so first-time Highlander Hybrid drivers experience a split-second of doubt when they twist the key in the ignition and hear nothing. Ease into the accelerator and you'll hear only the peaceful hum of an electric motor until you hit 25 mph or blast the A/C.

But there's real power here when you need it. The hybrid drivetrain turns out 268 horsepower to the regular Highlander's 230. Toyota doesn't release a cumulative torque figure for its hybrids, but with the electric motors specializing in low-end pull and the gas engine hitting its stride in the midrange, acceleration is swift at any speed. During track-testing, the Highlander Hybrid ran a 7.2-second 0-60, which makes it one of the fastest SUVs in its price range.

We weren't delighted with our 23-mpg average, considering that Toyota's hybrid SUV is rated 31 city/27 highway. However, among 7- to 8-passenger SUVs, it really doesn't get any better than that; the long-term Honda Pilot, for example, averaged just 18 mpg. Moreover, whenever we got stuck in traffic, the fuel economy monitor in the Highlander let us know it was pulling down 30 mpg, no problem.

Toyota is offering the Highlander Hybrid in both base and Limited trims, with either front- or all-wheel drive. However you decide to equip yours, you'll get more features than you would on the regular Highlander. Our Limited tester, for instance, came standard with leather and side airbags.

Even when you adjust for these extras, though, you're still paying about $3 grand more for the hybrid technology. You can take a $2,000 federal tax credit if you buy your Highlander Hybrid in the 2005 calendar year; the incentive drops to $500 in 2006.

Apart from the focus on fuel economy, the Highlander remains a likable SUV six years into its life cycle. It's still no athlete when the road turns twisty, but its smooth ride and comfortable seating will win over families. Its third-row seat is more of an afterthought than it is functional, but this is still the only hybrid that seats seven.

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