2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
The Highlander Hybrid fits perfectly into Toyota's plan for leadership in the emerging hybrid category. Unlike the Toyota Prius, the Highlander looks just like its nonhybrid siblings, appealing to buyers who may not want to shout their green credentials. Combined with two electric motors, the Highlander Hybrid's V-6 engine delivers power and fuel economy, all in a spacious and comfortable SUV. Its Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle rating, a rare distinction for an SUV, affirms its friendliness to the environment. We like the nice balance of this efficient people hauler, but wish Toyota had included a few more technology touches inside to complement the technology under the hood. We tested a four-wheel-drive Limited model loaded with a $2,000 touch-screen GPS navigation system, which also displays hybrid use and fuel economy, and the Preferred Accessory Package, which adds floor mats, a cargo net, a first-aid kit, and a glass-breakage sensor for $426. Port-installed tube steps ($459), an emergency-assistance kit ($70), a Valor exhaust tip ($64), and a $109 hood protector brought the MSRP to $42,983, placing the Highlander Hybrid between the and the .
An unassuming dashboard
In the cabin, the Highlander Hybrid lacks a number of technology features found in the more expensive Lexus. Toyota has provided a simple keyless remote but not the SmartAccess entry and starting system, which allows the key and the remote to remain in a pocket or a purse. Bluetooth connectivity is also missing, along with HID headlamps. The navigation option in our test vehicle offered voice-route guidance and was easy to operate. Navigation shares the center LCD screen with Toyota's power-flow animation, also seen in the .
The center-console touch-screen LCD shows navigation or a hybrid power chart.
A perfectly competent eight-speaker JBL audio system with an in-dash CD changer and steering-wheel controls is standard in the Limited. It's also available in the base model, though it costs a breathtaking $1,770 because it's bundled with a moon roof, fog lights, and a rear spoiler. There's no provision in the current Highlander audio mix for portable music players or MP3 recordings--an oversight that the company should correct.
The big front seats are supportive, heated, and power adjustable. With fore and aft adjustment, the middle-row seating provides some comfort for moderate distances, while the third row of seating is best for small children or corporal punishment. All are leather upholstered in Limited models and covered in a quality cloth in the base edition.
Power at a discount
For technology consumers, there's a lot to like under the Highlander Hybrid's hood. Toyota's full hybrid system allows the gas engine, the electric motor, or both to power the SUV. The Highlander's gas engine is a powerful 3.3-liter V6, detuned just a bit for clean emissions, mated to a 123-kilowatt electric motor. In four-wheel-drive models, an additional 50-kilowatt electric motor powers the rear wheels when needed. Both electric motors become generators when the throttle is lifted or the brakes are applied.
From a performance standpoint, the Highlander Hybrid lives up to much of its hype, delivering 0-to-60 acceleration in just 7.5 seconds, along with 25mpg fuel economy during our tests. In city driving, the electric motors easily power the Highlander forward from stoplights, and the continuously variable transmission gives the entire acceleration band an enjoyably smooth feeling. While holding steady speeds on the freeway, we felt slight power shifts as the hybrid system directed energy flow between the gas engine and the electric motors; however, this affected neither the handling nor the speed.
The Highlander Hybrid gives no ground to its Lexus sibling when it comes to keeping occupants safe. Dual-stage smart air bags and seat-mounted side air bags provide collision security for the driver and the front passenger. Roll-sensing side-curtain air bags are deployed in the front and second row, and all seating positions have three-point seatbelts with pre-tension and force-limiting capability up front.
The comfortable seats and the roomy cabin combined with the Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle rating and decent mileage make for a guiltless SUV.
The Highlander's solid construction, strategic crush zones, and generous complement of air bags work well for passive safety when a collision is unavoidable. Perhaps more important is Toyota's unique combination of vehicle-stability control, antilock brakes with brake assist, and brake-force distribution. Those systems cooperate with each other for precise vehicle control when emergency maneuvers are necessary. A few highly skilled drivers may do as well as the hardware and software combination that Toyota labels Star Safety, but plenty of drivers may avoid a trip to the body shop or worse with this system in place.
The Highlander Hybrid is available in two trim levels: standard and Limited, both available with front-wheel- or four-wheel-drive systems. The non-Limited version does not allow the addition of the pricey navigation system, but it has a long list of standard equipment, the same Hybrid Synergy power train, and Toyota reliability. It comes with a basic warranty of 36 months/36,000 miles plus a warranty of 60 months/60,000 miles on the power train and eight years/100,000 miles on the hybrid power train.