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The 2008 model year update to the Toyota Highlander Hybrid took the unoriginal path, reflected by model updates across the industry, of making everything bigger. The new Highlander is higher and wider, giving more space inside but also increasing the weight, a counterintuitive design move with a hybrid. On the positive side, the EPA-rated fuel economy hasn't changed, even though the car uses the same power train as in previous years.
The new Highlander Hybrid gets a unique cabin feature: a standard small LCD display at the top of the dashboard stack, which displays the rear-view camera and hybrid system information. Navigation and a Bluetooth cell phone connection aren't available with the base model Highlander Hybrid; you will need to get the Limited model for those options. You can read about these options in our review of the nonhybrid 2008 Toyota Highlander Limited. Without the cabin gadgets, our Highlander Hybrid seemed a little bare. We enjoyed using the hybrid system, which comes with an EV mode switch, but the performance wasn't all we would have liked.
Test the tech: Los Angeles road trip
We happened to get the 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid in for our review the same week as the 2007 Los Angeles Auto Show, so we took the car on the approximately 800-mile round trip. As the car didn't have navigation, we borrowed a Garmin Nuvi from the office, affixing its clamp to the Highlander's windshield. We wouldn't stoop to using paper maps.
Our auto show crew included editors Wayne Cunningham and Kevin Massy, and photographer Sarah Tew. With luggage for three nights, we didn't exactly fill the large interior of the Highlander Hybrid. Noticing the lack of entertainment niceties, such as satellite radio and a rear-seat DVD player, we looked over the car's sticker to see what options we did have. It came with a package that included lots of little things, such as vanity lights for the sun visor mirrors and cloth trim for the third-row seat. But we had a hard time figuring out how all these little touches added up to the $4,435 price of the option. Although only the driver seat was power adjustable, we did find the broad and cushiony front and middle-row seats very comfortable for this road trip.
We derived some entertainment for the first part of the trip watching the small LCD show us information about the hybrid system. We could see the battery level, the energy flow, and the occasional electric vehicle mode indicator, a big "EV" in the center of the screen. But as we were sticking to the freeway, using 101 on the way down to Los Angeles, most of the energy flow was from the engine to the wheels. When we accelerated to pass or when climbing a hill, we could see the electric motor add its effort, and when we braked energy flowed back into the battery. Going over the winding path of 101, up and down hills along the coast at about 70 mph, the Highlander Hybrid got about 24 mpg, a little shy of its 25 mpg EPA highway rate.
When we had to give it the gas, the Highlander didn't exactly leap forward, but it did seem willing to go the distance. It would sedately accelerate, and that acceleration would carry on up whatever hill faced us. That type of performance is typical for continuously variable transmissions, which lack a hard gear where you can build up lots of revs. During our initial driving, we didn't think much of the Highlander Hybrid's cornering, as it felt top-heavy and exhibited a lot of body roll. But we got a chance to test its emergency maneuverability when what looked like a tire appeared in the road ahead. Kevin Massy, behind the wheel, made a quick veer into the center lane, dodging what turned out to be a tumbleweed. The Highlander Hybrid swayed in a disconcerting fashion, but stayed upright. Kevin commented that the car never felt out of his control during that incident.
On the way back, we took the faster Interstate 5, which took little to no advantage of the car's hybrid power train. With speeds often above 80 mph for the 400-mile trip, our fuel economy dipped down to 22 mpg. Although these numbers may sound disappointing given the EPA fuel economy, most full-size SUVs we've tested can't break 20 mpg. And the Highlander Hybrid's fuel economy will look really good in heavy traffic and low-speed city driving.
In the cabin
As we mentioned above, the 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid we received wasn't very teched out. If you want to read about the available cabin tech on the Highlander Hybrid Limited, please read our review of the 2008 Toyota Highlander Limited. Our base model Highlander Hybrid used some questionable material in the cabin, such as fake wood-grain plastic over the console. We had a little trouble getting a 12-volt adaptor out of one of the car's console power points, and as we tugged at it, we saw the plastic cover bend and pull upwards.