Highlander Hybrid: 0 for 2
See earlier EV World review of Highlander Hybrid
As you climb into the new Toyota Highlander Hybrid, you get the feeling of space. Lots of room, with comfortable seats for seven people and plenty of cup holders. Neat displays show you a wealth of information about the vehicle’s performance. When you press hard on the accelerator, you are rewarded with mind-blowing acceleration or you can tow up to 3500 pounds. Plus, you are driving a hybrid, so you are helping the environment. Right?
Um… No. There is an important difference between “helping the environment” and “hurting the environment a bit less.” The Highlander Hybrid definitely falls within the “hurts the environment a bit less” category, and that is only when it is compared to Hummers, Suburbans and Expeditions. Of course, even a Toyota Prius damages the environment, but at least it does much less damage than most other cars on the road. In contrast, the Highlander Hybrid weighs more than 4500 pounds, makes more than 376 total horsepower, and got less than 22 mpg during my one-week extended test drive. Compared to the last version of the Highlander Hybrid, the new model grew in every dimension and gained more than 500 pounds. On what planet could this be considered an “environmentally responsible” design?
The good news is that the American car buying public understands. In 2007, Toyota sold a whopping 181,221 Priuses, a respectable 49,508 Camry Hybrids, and only 16,284 Highlander Hybrids. While the high price of the Highlander Hybrid (the window sticker on my loaner showed $39,618) undoubtedly limits the customer base, there are other factors at work as well. Put succinctly, people don’t believe the hype surrounding the “performance hybrid” PR campaigns. In fact, Honda’s only entry into the performance hybrid market segment, the 255hp Accord Hybrid, was recently cancelled due to anemic sales. Linda Weidemann, who helps organize a popular hybrid owners get-together, recently wrote, “Honda failed to identify their demographic. The car didn't appeal to the fuel-economy conscious, since its increase wasn't as high as was needed to appeal to those people… The fact that it was a hybrid didn't appeal to the ‘muscle car’ folks who might have chosen an Accord over a GT or a Prowler.”
The same can be said about the Highlander Hybrids versus a Dodge Ram or a crew cab F350.
What is the Highlander Hybrid like to drive? Since the Highlander is based on the competent-but-uninspiring Camry platform, we can use Camry handling as a starting point. Take a Camry, add more than 1000 pounds, raise everything up about a foot, and you will get a pretty good estimate of the feel of the Highlander Hybrid. Let me call it “ponderous but competent.” As I mentioned, the cabin has plenty of space. I am 6’6”, and I was extremely comfortable in the driver’s seat. My two kids had loads of room in the second row seats, and we never put anyone into the fold-away third row seats. My six-year-old daughter remarked about the multitude of cup holders everywhere one looks. Also, there is a rear-view camera linked to an in-dash screen. While backing up, the driver has a wonderful view of everything behind the vehicle.
There seemed to be an annoying glitch with the rear latch. Several times after I closed it very securely, the “latch open” light on the dash remained illuminated. In order to get it to turn off, I had to open and close the latch again, even though I knew it had been secure the whole time.
The Highlander Hybrid’s acceleration is staggering, especially considering its enormous bulk. In “Normal” mode, when you punch the accelerator, you get pinned to the back of the seat. Press the “Economy” button, and the acceleration is still very, very potent. Note that I do not list monstrous accelerations amongst the “Pros” for the vehicle. Frankly, this much power in a vehicle that handles this poorly is a bit scary. Moreover, the emphasis on acceleration over conservation highlights Toyota’s backward priorities in the design of the Highlander Hybrid. Even with the “Economy” button pushed, I could only squeak out 23mpg overall, and I consistently got better gas mileage on the freeway than I did around town. I braked very carefully, staying in “regen” mode as much as I possibly could, but whenever I was in stop-and-go traffic, I watched the fuel economy display tick downward. Cleary, Toyota designed the electric drive system to help the vehicle get up and go. Sadly, they did not put enough emphasis on recapturing energy used in braking.
The “EV Mode” button is essentially useless. Yes, I could put it in “EV-only” mode, and it seemed to work while I was in reverse. However, as soon as I shifted into “D” and put any pressure whatsoever on the accelerator, the control system kicked the vehicle back into standard operating mode.
Some readers may think I am being unfair. Indeed, the Highlander Hybrid was such a disappointment to me because I know that Toyota is capable of much, much better. They have set the bar so high with the Prius and Camry Hybrid that any Toyota hybrid which is not exceptional will seem mediocre in comparison. Perhaps if GM had come out with this vehicle, I might have hailed it as the company’s potential salvation or at least a very large step in the right direction. If you absolutely must drive a vehicle that rapes the Earth every time you press on the gas pedal, by all means get a Highlander Hybrid instead of a Hummer with a lift kit and off-road tires.
Other people who carry lots of passengers and cargo, on the other hand, should keep driving their current vehicles and wait until one of the car companies builds something better. If Toyota wants to see an example of a truly “Green” SUV, they should research (wait a minute… let me check my notes here… I got it…) TOYOTA! The RAV4 EV, built from 1997 to 2003, was a beautiful example of what the family truckster/soccer mom vehicle of the future could look like. If Toyota is looking for a state-of-the-art example of a similar vehicle, they should check out the all-electric eBox by AC Propulsion which is based on Toyota’s Scion xB. If they are not ready to build anything that radical, they could build a hybrid version of the Toyota Matrix or RAV4 with a small Atkinson-cycle engine and a large electric drive system.
And Toyota, whatever hybrid you decide to build next, please, please, PLEASE PUT A PLUG IN IT!
Plenty of room for driver, passengers and cargo
Good towing capacity
Neat rear-view camera
Somewhat better gas mileage than a Mack truck
Horrid gas mileage, in the big picture
Did I already mention the gas mileage?
Bottom Line: If you’ve got $40,000 to spend and you need to carry seven people, buy two Priuses
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