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Expert Reviews 1 of 3
By Joe Wiesenfelder
November 21, 2008
Editor's note: This review was written in June 2008 about the 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2009, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
On the surface, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid seems a fantastic idea: a hybridized version of an already relatively efficient crossover, and one of the only hybrids with an electric-only mode. Though the reality of this model is positive overall, it is an expensive alternative with only a minimal mileage advantage on the highway and an electric-only mode that — as executed — is a gimmick of little practical value. Short supply, high sale prices and the expiration of federal tax credits for Toyota hybrids all call into question the benefits of buying the Highlander Hybrid.
Kelsey Mays covered the regular Highlander in great detail in his review, so I'll concentrate on what makes the Hybrid different — and special among hybrids. You can also explore a side-by-side comparison of the Hybrid and non-hybrid. The Hybrid comes in base and Limited trim levels, but not the in-between Sport trim offered on the regular Highlander. I tested a Limited Hybrid.
2008 Highlander Hybrid 4WD
2008 Highlander 4WD
2008 Highlander 2WD
2009 Honda Pilot 4WD
2009 Honda Pilot 2WD
MPG disclaimer: Where EPA mileage estimates used to overstate performance, especially for hybrids, the new 2008 method is more reliable; for some models it seems to have swung toward underestimating hybrid results. That said, we need more time to determine how accurately it predicts the new Highlander Hybrid's performance. Without exception, my experience finds that hybrids suffer dramatic mileage reductions in cold weather; for example, the Prius exceeds its EPA estimate in warm temperatures and falls below it in the cold. Only a year-long average will tell the whole tale.
As the table illustrates, the Hybrid improves markedly on the city mileage of the regular Highlander and a leading competitor, which in turn boosts its rating for combined driving. Less impressive is the highway rating, which adds 2 mpg to the non-hybrid 4WD Highlander but just 1 mpg to the front-drive model. While the regular Highlander comes standard with front-wheel drive, the Hybrid comes only with four-wheel drive, which it achieves by means of an electric motor on the rear axle. I guess if you want 4WD it's no big deal, but if your bottom line is cost — in fuel and purchase price — you'd probably prefer that Toyota over a front-drive Hybrid.
The first-generation Highlander Hybrid, last sold as a 2007 model, came in both front- and four-wheel drive, but Toyota says only 20 percent of buyers chose the front-drive version, so it eliminated the option. My guess is the rate would be higher in today's fuel-cost climate, but for what it's worth, the previous generation's 2WD only improved on the 4WD version in city driving, and then only by 1 mpg. The electric rear drive eliminates the weight of a mechanical driveshaft coming from the front and adds to the regenerative-braking power, whereby the motor serves as a generator that uses the car's momentum to recharge the high-voltage battery when braking or coasting. In other words, you seem to get the gain with very little pain — apart from the higher upfront price. The Highlander costs $1,450 more with 4WD than with FWD, in all trim levels.
Mileage gains that are more substantial in city than in highway driving are common among "full" hybrids of the type Toyota, Lexus, Ford and Nissan currently market. GM's 2-Mode system performs in a similar fashion. This is because the electric motor provides more assistance and regenerates more electricity in stop-and-go driving. So if you're mostly tooling around the city, they're hard to beat ... if your goal is to burn less gas. If you're looking to save money in the long run, that's a more complex story I'll get to in a moment. The Driving Experience Now in its second generation, the Hybrid drives even more like a normal car, with no real quirks to speak of. If you pay close attention, you'll notice that there's no pronounced shifting because the gear ratios in the transmission (which is neither a conventional transmission nor a belt-driven CVT) are continuously variable. Given how smooth today's regular automatics tend to be, it's likely that many drivers could pilot this hybrid without noticing any difference at all. Of course, you can't help but notice that the gas engine turns off when you come to a stop and when moving slowly in traffic.
Even in a hybrid, driving style matters, and the Highlander gives you ways to monitor what's going on behind the scenes so you can pattern your behavior for maximum efficiency. Like many non-hybrids, it has instantaneous and average mileage readouts, which help you learn to go easy on the accelerator. Like most hybrids, this model also has a charge/assist gauge that shows if the electric motor is assisting acceleration or charging the battery. Where this one improves on the others is with the addition of an LED bar graph along the circumference of the gauge that rises and falls depending on the vehicle's speed and acceleration rate. This is an economy range; if you keep the assist needle within the range, you're getting the best possible efficiency. Unlike some other hybrids' gauges, which present a fixed economy range, this is more of a sliding scale that accounts for other factors that influence efficiency.
Another big plus in the Highlander Hybrid is its standard LCD screen, which is smaller than the optional navigation screen and mounted higher in the center of the dashboard. In the base model, which doesn't offer the navigation system option — or in case you don't want to spend an additional $2,655 for it in the Limited trim level — this screen shows some of the power-flow diagrams and fuel economy readouts that usually come only on large touch-screens. In models that do have navigation, this small display gives you some of the same information without requiring you to switch back and forth between the large screen's functions, such as maps or the satellite radio's artist and song information. All cars with nav systems could use a supplemental display like this one.
Another benefit of the small screen is that it allows for a backup camera option separate from the more elaborate and expensive nav system that also includes the feature. Electric-Only Mode Two buttons on the center console alongside the gear selector, marked EV and ECON, are intended to help you maximize efficiency. ECON simply makes the accelerator pedal less sensitive and easier to modulate, which is useful when trying to accelerate on electric power alone. If you accelerate too abruptly, the gas engine turns on — as it does whenever you reach roughly 25 to 30 mph. Toyota says that EV, the electric vehicle mode, raises that threshold, holding onto electric-only operation for more aggressive acceleration before starting the engine, but overall I think it's a bust. Over and over I accelerated with EV mode both on and off, and after several minutes of contemplating how much difference it made, I concluded that if I had to give it that much thought, it wasn't doing enough.
Though the EV mode is a disappointment, it bears noting that electric-only acceleration is widely overestimated in all hybrids. With or without an EV mode, parallel hybrids like the Highlander accelerate too slowly on electric power alone to satisfy all but the most patient drivers among the most patient traffic ... right, let's just say no traffic. Attempting to preempt road rage behind you will start up the engine almost every time. It's when you're creeping along in a traffic jam that the engine truly stays off for extended periods, at least until the high-voltage battery depletes.
On the flip side, the gas engine turns off more than you'd expect when coasting and braking, even at higher speeds, so the end result is still high efficiency. My expectations for hybrids have been colored somewhat after test driving a prototype plug-in Prius, which was truly electric-only for robust acceleration to more than 60 mph. As I mentioned, how much it's in electric mode is academic, but the plug-in had a neat feature worthy of any hybrid, plug-in or non: It gives you an idea of when you're about to turn on the gas engine so you can better modulate the accelerator. The Lexus LS 600h, which also has an EV mode, attempts to do this with a warning that appears on the instrument panel, but by the time that happens, it's usually too late. The plug-in Prius had parallel bar graphs, one representing your acceleration and the other representing the threshold that varies with speed and other conditions. So long as I kept one's level below the other's, I was sure to never trigger the gas engine. With its advanced charge/assist gauge, the Highlander Hybrid seems close to offering exactly this amount of information, but it didn't correlate to electric-only motoring.
The most frustrating thing about Toyota hybrids is that none delivers on the promise as well as the Prius, which succeeds because it's the most affordable hybrid on the market and it gets the best mileage, and it happens to be a very well-rounded and versatile car. Its secret is that it was designed from scratch to be a hybrid, and it teams its electric system with a four-cylinder engine, which also delivers good results in the Camry Hybrid. The V-6- and V-8-based hybrids from Toyota and Lexus aren't as impressive.
Part of the problem is that the Highlander Hybrid is too quick. Yes, unnecessarily quick. The current Prius could have been engineered to be quicker; it would then be less efficient and might not have become the most important vehicle of the 21st century. American motorists, and thus the automakers who serve them, have fallen prey to what I call the onramp fallacy: the notion that you'll surely die if your car takes 9 seconds to get to 60 mph instead of 8 seconds. Maybe now that gas prices have become a gut-punch, we can all learn to wait another 5 seconds for oncoming cars to pass before we turn into traffic or merge. Less-powerful cars are coming into favor, and I suspect compromise will come to future hybrids, too, in the interest of efficiency. The Cost Issue We continue to ponder how long it will take for a given hybrid to pay for itself in fuel savings, and that's a difficult thing to do absent the big picture, which includes the full cost of ownership and the unknowable future of gas prices. Over the years I've found gas price increases to make less of a difference than you might expect, though the fact that they've tripled since hybrids hit the scene certainly has affected the results. Unfortunately, a few other factors have arisen this year to eat away at hybrid advantages that have come with fuel price increases.
If you currently own a non-hybrid SUV, its resale/trade-in value is dismal, and this may only get worse in the near term. That's one strike against replacement-car affordability, be it hybrid or not. Also, the increase in hybrid demand is once again elevating their purchase price, typically above MSRP. Strike two. Being the most prolific hybrid manufacturer, Toyota has sold enough models that the limited allotment of federal tax credits have run dry ahead of other brands, so the subsidy that used to offset the premium price of hybrid technology for the Highlander Hybrid is now gone. Strike three?
For what it's worth, the base Hybrid's standard equipment is somewhere between what you'd get in the regular model's base and Sport trim levels. In this climate, I've dismissed the practice of comparing hybrids to "comparably equipped" models, assuming that your goal is to save money, period. To that end, here's a breakdown of what you pay and what you get with the most affordable versions of the regular and hybrid Highlander. The comparison is complicated by the fact that the base Hybrid has five seats standard and the base non-hybrid has seven but offers a $740 discount if you remove the third seat row. You can add the third row of seats to the base Hybrid with one of two option packages, the less expensive of which is $2,800. (The Hybrid Limited comes with seven seats, with no option to delete, but let's not complicate things. If you can afford a Limited, you can afford a calculator and do your own math.)
2008 Highlander Hybrid vs. Gas-Only Highlander
Most affordable versions of each
Base list price (5 seats/ 7 seats)
Cost vs. Highlander Hybrid (5 seats)
Cost vs. Highlander Hybrid (7 seats)
Combined mileage disadvantage vs. Highlander Hybrid
-$7,440 (22 percent less)
-$9,500 (26 percent less)
-6 mpg (23% worse)
-$5,990 (18 percent less)
-$8,050 (22 percent less)
-7 mpg (27% worse)
*Third-row seat comes in $2,800 option package with additional items. **Standard third-row-seat deletion ($740 discount) subject to availability. Sources: EPA, Toyota
Bear in mind that the base list prices above are optimistic, because of increased demand. Also, the additional $2,800 option package is a lot of dough for someone who only wants a third-row seat, but I cite it because you might not have a choice. When supply is short, custom-ordering a car can add unacceptable delays, and dealers may pre-order loaded versions to meet estimated demand and/or improve their profit margin.
Only you can decide if buying a Highlander Hybrid is worthwhile, and it depends largely on what, if anything, you're trading in, what you might buy instead of the Highlander Hybrid and what you're trying to accomplish. If you want to use less petroleum or release less carbon dioxide, there's as much reason as ever to buy a hybrid. Saving money in the long run isn't necessarily closer than before.