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Our only tech feature of note in the cabin was the audio system, the interface of which uses oversized buttons and knobs. Even though the knobs for the system are massive, the fact that they are identical to the fan and vent knobs had us occasionally creating a mini windstorm when we just wanted to turn the volume up. The option package we had on our Highlander Hybrid bumped the CD player up to a six-disc changer. It reads MP3 CDs, displaying ID3 tag information on its green radio display. Although the radio display isn't very informative, we found it easy to move through folders on a CD with the big folder button. But you won't get track or folder lists with this system. There is an auxiliary input jack down at the bottom of the stack, too, with two 12-volt power points in proximity.
The audio system in this base model only uses six speakers, two tweeters in front and a woofer on each door. We were surprised how much bass came out of the speakers, but not in a good way. It wasn't a particularly deep bass, and it overwhelmed the sound quality. Even turning the bass down in the audio controls didn't help much. The result was some of the poorest audio quality we've heard in a car.
Under the hood
We covered the performance of the Highlander Hybrid on the freeway above. Its hybrid system uses a 3.3-liter V-6 combined with three motor generators to power all wheels. The 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid only comes in all-wheel-drive. This is the same power train as you will find in a Lexus RX400h. Toyota's hybrid power train components let the car drive in electric-only mode at low speeds, transparently turning the engine off when the car is stopped. One feature that's new to the Highlander Hybrid is an electric mode switch, which will keep the car running under electric power as long as possible. Once the battery gets too low, the engine will automatically kick in to generate electricity and drive the wheels.
Taking the engine and motors together, the power train delivers 270 horsepower, with 209 of that coming from the gas engine. The engine also brings 212 lb-ft. of torque to bear, complemented by 343 lb-ft. from the electric motors. But the motors only deliver that amount of torque at lower rpms, so you won't get a big boost when the car is already at speed.
The EPA fuel economy for this 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is 27 mpg city and 25 mpg highway. In our cruising around San Francisco, the trip computer showed 27 mpg, consistent with the EPA numbers. But we were disappointed how rapidly the economy dropped once we got up to higher speeds on the freeway. But the fact it never dipped below 20 mpg is a good sign for long-term efficiency. On the green side of things, the Highlander Hybrid gets an emission rating of SULEV from the California Air Resources Board, one of the better ratings a car can get.
The size and high center of gravity of the Highlander Hybrid means cornering can be a little scary. We were initially disconcerted by the amount of body roll, but found the car handled an emergency maneuver without a problem. Steering is relatively tight on the Highlander Hybrid, without a lot of play in the wheel.
Our test car was a 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, with a base price of $33,700. It came with the Popular Plus package for a whopping $4,435, which includes the third-row seats, six-disc changer, and 19-inch wheels. Along with its $635 destination charge, the total came out to $38,820, a little too close to $40,000. Of course, if you want to spend more, you can start out with the 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited for $39,950. Fully optioned up with navigation, Bluetooth, and a decent stereo system, that one will run you $47,335, putting the Highlander Hybrid into a luxury vehicle price range. However, after trying out those cabin tech options in the Highlander Limited, we came away impressed.
With our test Highlander Hybrid, beside the hybrid power train, we didn't find too much special about it. We're a little disappointed that the Highlander has gotten bigger, as the older model seemed nicely proportioned. Also, the Highlander Hybrid has been virtually alone in the full-size hybrid SUV market (besides its luxury sibling, the Lexus RX400h), but it's about to get some serious competition with dual-mode hybrid GMC Yukons and Chevy Tahoes. If those cars can undercut the high price of the Highlander Hybrid, Toyota will have to rethink its strategy.