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Expert Reviews 1 of 9
By Joe Wiesenfelder
April 15, 2005
If this is the most boring review ever of a gasoline/electric hybrid vehicle, don't blame me; credit Toyota. Though revolutionary beneath the surface, the brand's second hybrid model is so much like a conventional sport utility vehicle, it's almost boring. Based on the midsize Highlander SUV, the hybrid version looks just like a Highlander SUV a departure for Toyota, whose two successive Prius generations have been quirky and far-out looking, respectively. The Highlander Hybrid will make its debut in June 2005, in base and Limited trim levels and with front- or all-wheel drive.
The word hybrid is mighty popular these days, to the point of undue hype. Studies suggest that most Americans don't understand what hybrids are all about. A few major tips:
Hybrid cars are never plugged into a household power source.
Hybrid fuel economy is never as good as the EPA ratings suggest yet is still markedly better than a comparable non-hybrid's.
The bottom line fuel economy, not technology is what matters.
A hybrid will not necessarily save you money.
Hybrids will not save the world.
For more info, read on. I'll stick mainly to the care and feeding of a Highlander Hybrid throughout the review, though I'll explain some of the technical tidbits where they affect performance. Exterior & Styling The Highlander Hybrid bears some of the cosmetic changes that will also appear on the regular 2006 Highlander, mainly a new integrated bumper, a chrome grille and chrome license plate garnish. The taillights now have LEDs instead of regular bulbs.
As for the two trim levels, the only differences are the presence of front fog lights and a rear spoiler on the Limited. Both have 17-inch alloy wheels, including a full-size spare tire. Ride & Handling The Highlander Hybrid, like the non-hybrid version, offers a comfortable ride. Compared to many SUVs, including some car-based ones, the Highlander is on the softer side. This comes with a bit more body roll than average, but the truck is certainly manageable and feels grounded, stable. If anything, the weight of the hybrid system's battery pack seems to lower the Hybrid's center of gravity. It also adds weight to the rear, which results in a more balanced front/rear weight distribution and lessens understeer.
The rack-and-pinion steering makes for precise control, and Toyota has done a nice job with the power assist. Conventional steering uses hydraulic pressure to help the driver turn the wheel. The hydraulic pump puts a constant load on the engine, which lowers fuel economy. So the Hybrid uses electric power assist that draws energy only when the wheel is turned. Other hybrids and some conventional cars have implemented electric assist, and some of them just don't feel right. This one passes muster.
Another technology that contributes to handling is Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management, which makes its debut on this vehicle. VDIM is a system that monitors and controls many of the other safety-related automated features such as an electronic stability system, ABS, traction control and more. Where these features currently react to skids, VDIM attempts to prevent them. The best comparison would be to all-wheel drive. Early all-wheel drive would transfer power from one axle to the other only after the wheels on the first axle began to slip. Now many electronically controlled all-wheel-drive systems anticipate slippage and divide power between the front and rear wheels in an attempt to prevent it.
Likewise, VDIM attempts to predict understeer, oversteer, spins and skids and to prevent them by managing the brakes, throttle and other aspects of the stability system. It can even change the assist level in the electric power steering when it's called for, but it doesn't steer the vehicle on its own. The goal is a seamless driving experience rather than the sometimes intrusive feel when one of the safety systems reacts. I drove the Hybrid aggressively, and I couldn't tell if I was triggering VDIM or not. Toyota says that's the point. Going & Stopping Going and stopping are the keys to gasoline/electric hybrid efficiency. In a conventional car, acceleration uses the most fuel, cruising uses a moderate amount, and coasting effectively uses none. Braking doesn't use any fuel, but it wastes the momentum you built up the last time you accelerated. In stopping the car, friction in the brakes turns that energy into heat, a complete waste.
Hybrids combine a gasoline engine with an electric motor and a high-voltage battery pack and mind-bogglingly complex computer control. Fed by the battery pack, the electric motor helps the gasoline engine to accelerate the car. This saves fuel. More important, when the driver steps on the brake pedal, the computer tells the electric drive motor to act like a generator: The rotating wheels turn the motor/generator, which generates electricity and recharges the battery pack. It's this capture and reuse of energy that makes the Toyota hybrids more efficient in stop-and-go city driving than they are on the highway.
The all-wheel-drive version of the truck has an additional electric motor/generator that drives the rear wheels and contributes to the so-called regenerative braking. This model pays a fuel-economy penalty, though it's not as great as in many vehicles with conventional four- or all-wheel drive. The table below compares the fuel economy of conventional and hybrid versions of the Highlander.
Highlander Fuel Economy Compared
EPA-Estimated (city/highway, mpg)
As you can see, the Hybrid's EPA-estimated fuel economy is better than that of the four-cylinder Highlander. What you don't see is that the Hybrid accelerates quicker than the conventional V-6 model, and the all-wheel-drive version is quicker than the one with front-wheel drive unheard of in regular vehicles. Where most hybrids are designed to maximize fuel economy, this model combines the V-6 engine and electric motor(s) to increase fuel economy and performance. Toyota cites a 0-to-60-mph acceleration time of 7.5 seconds with front-wheel drive. The extra motor in the version with all-wheel drive, or what the company calls 4WD-i (four-wheel drive with intelligence), delivers a quicker time still, 7.3 seconds. Toyota stresses that 4WD-i is not intended for offroad driving.
If you're considering buying this model, or any other hybrid, be sure to manage your expectations. EPA fuel-economy estimates have proven unreliable. They're not particularly accurate for conventional vehicles either, but in that realm they're relatively consistent or consistently wrong from one model to another. The EPA's antiquated test sequence seems to overestimate hybrid fuel economy disproportionately. While the automakers would like to provide more realistic numbers, they are obliged to stick with the EPA ratings rather than devise their own test protocol for which they alone are responsible.
It will take a while before we get a read on the Highlander Hybrid's true fuel-economy results. As an example, note that the Prius' estimated 60 mpg city has proven to be closer to 50 mpg still nothing to sneeze at.
In actual driving, the Highlander Hybrid is quick indeed. Where gasoline engines have to rev up before they produce their maximum power, the Hybrid's electric motor delivers its 247 pounds-feet of torque starting at 0 rpm. The 4WD-i's rear motor adds another 96 pounds-feet, also from a dead stop. For those who are more comfortable with good old gasoline engine ratings, the 3.3-liter V-6 generates 212 pounds-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm and 208 horsepower at 5,600 rpm. Note that these figures are based on premium, 91 octane, gasoline. The car will run fine on regular (87 octane) but with lower horsepower.
The Highlander Hybrid is the most seamless of the hybrids to date. The braking exhibits none of the strange behavior of early hybrids, and the acceleration is both responsive and natural. More astute drivers will notice that the transmission doesn't rev up and then shift, rev up and then shift. Though it technically isn't one, the Hybrid's transmission has the properties of a continuously variable transmission, which means it doesn't shift up or down in steps. Considering how smooth modern automatics have become, it's possible that the average driver could pilot this vehicle and never know it's a hybrid.
For those who want to be reminded, a power meter takes the place of the regular Highlander's tachometer and shows energy output and recovery. A simple LED display low on the speedometer shows where the power is flowing among the engine, battery pack and motor. The LCD touchscreen (optional on the Limited) shows greater detail, including the rear motor, if present. (There's actually another motor/generator that's not shown on the diagram, but nothing is lost in translation.) Like the other Toyota/Lexus hybrids, this one is a "full" hybrid, which means it can accelerate on electric or gasoline power, or both simultaneously. In practice, the vehicle accelerates on electric power alone less frequently than I expected; accomplishing this requires a very light touch on the accelerator and a lot of patience from the motorist behind you. Conversely, I found that the gas engine shuts off more frequently than I expected, such as when maintaining moderate speed or coasting at almost any speed.
I'll address issues such as drivetrain longevity and warranty below under the Special Considerations subheading. The Inside All Highlander Hybrids have seven seats in three rows. Toyota has done its best to ease third-row entry by making the second row slide forward, but I still managed to wipe out while climbing back there to the glee of onlooking colleagues. Once I recovered, I determined that the two-position third row isn't really for adults and that a head restraint to the neck is mighty painful.
The base model's seats are cloth, with power adjustments for the driver's seat, including lumbar. The steering wheel tilts but doesn't telescope. Either this feature or adjustable pedals would be a nice addition to help drivers of different statures to fit comfortably and distance themselves properly from the airbag.
The Hybrid's high-voltage battery pack resides underneath the second-row seat, which has raised the seat and diminished headroom a bit compared to the conventional Highlander. The front seats are also 1 inch farther forward, so anyone who has sized up a regular Highlander will want to double-check the Hybrid version.
The Limited trim level has heated leather seats and a power passenger seat. The interior exhibits the quality for which Toyota is well known. Silver trim and electroluminescent gauges are standard. The Limited adds metal scuff plates, faux-wood trim, a power moonroof, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift lever. Safety The Highlander Hybrid has dual-stage front airbags that deploy at either of two intensities depending on crash severity. The passenger's employs occupant classification, which also considers the occupant's size. Also standard are side-impact torso airbags for the front-seat occupants and side curtain-type airbags that cover the side windows flanking all three seat rows. Aside from providing head protection in a side impact, both of these curtains deploy if the SUV begins to roll over; this is intended to protect occupants and prevent their ejection.
Perhaps more imperative than the mundane safety features are the safety issues unique to hybrids. There's little information in this regard, as no hybrid has been crash-tested by our preferred agency, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. However, hybrids have been on American roads for many years now, and I've heard no reports of hazards resulting from high voltage in hybrid crashes. Toyota says the battery is designed to disconnect from the rest of the drivetrain if the airbags deploy. Cargo & Towing According to Toyota measurements, the Highlander Hybrid offers 10.5 cubic feet of cargo volume behind the third-row seat. With the 50/50-split seat folded flat into the floor, the volume increases to 39.7 cubic feet. The second row is split 60/40 and also folds to form a continuous flat cargo floor. With it lowered, the maximum cargo capacity is 80.6 cubic feet.
The Hybrid's payload is comparable to the Limited V6 version of the regular model. It's 1,605 pounds with front-wheel drive and 1,430 pounds with 4WD-i. The regular model rates 1,655 pounds and 1,425 pounds, respectively. The four-cylinder Highlander's payload is about 200 pounds higher in both instances.
In terms of trailer towing, the Hybrid is rated for a full 3,500 pounds. This is the maximum for regular Highlanders equipped with an optional tow package, which adds heavy-duty equipment under the hood as well as a hitch receiver in the back. Without this option, the Highlander V6's towing capacity is 2,000 pounds.
If you want to tow the Hybrid itself say, behind a motor home you'll need a full flatbed trailer or at least a dolly trailer to support the front wheels of the front-drive version. The hybrid drivetrain cannot be disconnected from the front wheels. This is one area where Honda has an advantage: With their conventional transmissions, the Honda hybrids have a Neutral setting that allows "four-down" towing. Features As of this writing, the Highlander Hybrid's features list is incomplete. When all the information is in, you can access it by clicking on the buttons at the upper-left of this page labeled Std. Equipment & Specs and Optional Equipment.
For those who are considering a Limited, I recommend splurging for the GPS-based navigation system and its touchscreen LCD. Aside from impressing your friends, the power flow display will help you adjust your driving style to maximize fuel economy. Also, the nav system is one of the better on the market. I still prefer Honda/Acura's interface, but this is a close second, and its map now shows the outline of actual buildings alongside many major streets, which helps one recognize where the vehicle is. Special Considerations Special vehicles have special considerations, which I'll attempt to address here.
One of the most common questions I get involves longevity, partly because the nickel-metal-hydride battery pack is a very expensive component, apart from the issue of labor. If one had to be replaced now, it could easily cost a couple thousand dollars. In addition to the usual bumper-to-bumper and drivetrain warranties, Toyota covers the hybrid components including the battery pack for eight years and 100,000 miles.
Beyond those limitations, you would be on your own. However, Toyota has sold hundreds of thousands of hybrids internationally for more than seven years. Last I checked, Toyota said no battery pack had ever been replaced due to wear. (Manufacturing defects are another issue.) The battery technology, for which Toyota holds one of its hundreds of patents, has proven remarkably robust. With time, the cost should come down. For what it's worth, a dead battery pack would equal a dead Highlander Hybrid. In comparison, the owner of a Honda hybrid could continue to drive even if the battery pack died though with diminished power.
Winter driving is another common question. So far the Toyota Priuses have performed roughly the same in snow as any front-drive car. Equipped with its stability system, the Highlander Hybrid is likely to be just fine. Concerned buyers should consider the 4WD-i option.
Extreme cold is another matter. A colleague up in Minnesota has reported that the Prius simply won't turn on when it's frigid. To be clear, we're talking temperatures well below zero like minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Again, Honda's simpler hybrid system would allow the cars to be started using any method by which a conventional car might be, given the extreme conditions. (To be fair, despite these advantages, the Honda hybrids are not as efficient as the Toyotas.) Highlander Hybrid in the Market On the heels of Ford's Escape Hybrid introduction, Toyota can't claim the first hybrid SUV though the Ford uses some Toyota hybrid technology. It is the first and only one with more than five seats, though, and the first to employ a dedicated motor to drive the rear wheels.
If you're interested in the Highlander Hybrid, you need to type your ZIP code into the Shop box above and find a dealer immediately. Toyota is building the vehicles only in Japan in a plant with a 60,000-unit annual capacity. Roughly 45,000 of them will be imported to the United States. Toyota says there are more than 100,000 so-called hand-raisers who have expressed interest in the model. For the notoriously scarce second-generation Prius there were only 60,000 hand-raisers.
Though one could argue that the Prius can pay for itself in fuel savings, the Highlander Hybrid is a question. Unlike the Prius, which is priced competitively within the midsize-car class, the HH demands a premium of about $5,000. The $2,000 federal tax deduction helps a bit, but bear in mind that this is a deduction, not a credit. It's taken against income and, when all is said and done, amounts to hundreds in real dollars, not thousands. The moribund Energy Bill provided for this deduction to become a credit, but there has been no movement on the bill since the current Prius was a pup.
The main reasons to buy this vehicle are for the added oomph or because you believe it's the right thing to do. What all consumers should consider is the bottom line: fuel economy, not technology. There are other technologies cylinder deactivation, lean-burn engines, high-gear-count transmissions, clean diesels and more that decrease fuel usage, or don't. The results are what matter, and many conventional cars get impressive mileage without these tricks.
The unfortunate reality is that if every car in the world were to transform, magically, into a hybrid right now, it wouldn't reverse the growing global thirst for petroleum. The future relies on a comprehensive energy initiative. In the meantime, paying less at the pump and spewing less carbon dioxide and pollutants is a good feeling. If you could use less gasoline to get from point A to point B, why wouldn't you?