A sexy topic like transportation does have its dull moments. Unfortunately, there’s no way to spice up discussion about the family car, or is there?
Conserving fuel and reducing emissions certainly titillate this examiner, so naturally, when the opportunity to test drive the 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid came up, I was intrigued.
Truck-based, body-on-frame constructed Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs) lost much of their appeal once gasoline prices escalated but manufacturers couldn’t abandon the segment completely. Car-based unibody or crossover SUVs emerged as the new consumer favorite, including the Highlander.
Toyota introduced the all-new second-generation Highlander for 2008, including the Highlander Hybrid. The 2009 Highlander Hybrid continues with Hybrid Synergy Drive, which was extensively upgraded and refined for the second generation for both power and fuel economy.
The hybrid technology continues to advance. The system combines a 3.3-liter V6 engine, that produces 270 horsepower, with its high-torque electric drive motor-generator and uses a second rear-mounted motor to provide automatic on-demand four-wheel drive (4WD) with intelligence traction.
But this means nothing if the hybrid can’t show impressive fuel economy. The 2009 Highlander Hybrid achieves an EPA estimated fuel economy of 27 miles per gallon (mpg) in the city (stop-and-go traffic suits this hybrid) and 25 mpg on the highway. The combined figure is about 30 percent higher than the conventional V6 Highlander 4WD model that achieves an EPA estimated city/highway fuel economy of 17/23 mpg. A super low emissions rating provides a cheery on top of this hybrid cupcake.
One of the nicest advances on the new hybrids is the improved interactivity between the driver and the machine. These vehicles appeal because of their fuel efficiency so digital displays on the instrument panel that let the driver know how fuel efficiently he or she is driving enhance the driving experience. The Highlander’s is informative as well as understated.
Activating an EV mode switch located on the front center console allows the driver to operate strictly in electric-mode under certain conditions for a limited distance at low speeds, or in certain stop-and-go driving conditions. A new ECON drive mode switch activates a throttle control program that smoothes out the throttle response. This action helps limit excessive acceleration thereby enhancing fuel economy but it can be a hindrance if the driver attempts to enter the freeway with it engaged.
No family vehicle discussion is complete without the mention of safety and functionality.
The Highlander Hybrid employs the advanced Vehicle Dynamics Integrated
Management (VDIM) system that enhances handling, traction and braking systems by integrating all of the Highlander's dynamic control systems, including vehicle stability control, traction control and anti-lock brakes. Side curtain airbags are also standard, as is my favorite safety feature, the rear backup camera.
With seating for seven or up to 95.1 cubic feet of total cargo capacity, the SUV adds numerous storage compartments along with ten cup holders and four bottle holders.
The second row slides fore and aft 4.7 inches and reclines. It provides 40/20/40 split seatbacks and the Center Stow seat can be removed, creating a walk-through area for easier access to the third row of seats. Operating the flip up lever on the second row, however, was a little clunky and difficult to find.
Equipped with Smart Start and Entry, the Highlander Hybrid also comes with air conditioning, front seats with height-adjustable active head rests, power door locks and windows with driver's window jam protection, cruise control, and an AM/FM stereo with a CD player with six speakers, MP3/WMA playback capability and an auxiliary audio jack.
The test model included the Popular Package ($3,920) with a six-disc CD changer, a power rear door, and XM Satellite capability.
To choose a hybrid is to pay a premium. The base price on the 2009 Highlander is $26,505. The base on the Highlander Hybrid is $35,445. The price on the Highlander Hybrid as tested came to $41,020. Tax credits for all Toyota hybrids have been phased out.
Keeping SUVs viable, versatility remains a key requirement of a family vehicle. While crossovers rejuvenate the SUV segment, hybrid versions give some consumers the vapors.