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2008 Highlander Hybrid with beautiful Santa Ynez valley as a backdrop
The pristine late afternoon light in the Santa Ynez valley was a welcome relief from the gray and gloom along the coast. Here our test vehicle seems to reflect the Shangri La-like atmosphere of forested hills, horse ranches and vineyards.

The Royal Highway Hybrid

My adventures along the 'El Camino Real' in the 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

By Bill Moore

When you drive California's legendary 'el Camino Real' -- the Royal Highway -- you'll pass hundreds of road markers crowned with symbolic church bells reminding you of the original purpose of the track -- now a four-lane highway -- that winds through the coastal range linking a succession of Spanish missions: Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, San Jose, among the many.

It is hard to imagine a more beautiful setting in which to plant a new faith and test a new hybrid; in this case a 2008 4WD Toyota Highlander Hybrid. This was not my first time in the Highlander, but it was my first time driving the 101 from Santa Monica to San Jose, with brief diversions to visit with a friend for breakfast in Malibu, another in the hills east of Paso Robles, and two business associates just outside of the town of Santa Ynez. In total, I would put more than 400 miles on the Waveline Pearl-colored sport utility, faithfully guided by the Garmin GPS my daughter had given me for Christmas in 2007, after reading about my earlier experience in driving the first Highlander.

Between the smooth, quiet, comfortable and commanding ride offered by the Highlander and the reassuring directions provided by the GPS, I couldn't have asked for a better environment in which to explore the ranch and wine country of California's central coast, This is the kind of drive I'd have preferred to share with others, my wife, my daughter, my parents, but this time out, I would be alone with my thoughts and reflections, mulling over what I would write about and wondering how in the world all those hundreds, if not thousands, of square miles of grapes would ever be picked. It seems that the trellaces of vines stretch for miles, often as far as the eye can see.

The Highlander wasn't my first choice. I had originally requested to test drive the Camry Hybrid, in which I have spent maybe 20 or 30 minutes back in 2006, as Mother Earth News' John Rockhold and I shared driving the car during Toyota Hybrid Seminar. There wasn't much of an opportunity to really get a sense of the vehicle apart from admiring its muscular lines. We were testing so many hybrids that all was a blur, with the exception of the newly released Lexus 450h. That ride was memorable.

The folks at Toyota wanted to know my itinerary, which originally was to fly into San Jose for the Plug-In 2008 Conference and then drive to LA with my wife for a bit of R&R with stops in Monterey, Carmel, etc. Toyota arranged to have a Camry Hybrid waiting in San Jose, scheduling another journalist to have the car until I needed it after the conference.

Unfortunately, my plans changed. Instead, I would be flying into LA for a couple of business meetings -- and to see the Tesla Showroom in Santa Monica for the first time. I wanted to then drive North, stopping in Malibu and then Santa Ynez. I would spend the night in San Luis Obispo and head out to visit Todd Fisher. From there, I'd drive the remaining 200 or so miles to San Jose, arriving in time for a press dinner being hosted by General Motors, at which they would announce their alliance with EPRI and some 30 other utilities, as well as with Coulomb Technologies.

With demand for their high-mileage hybrids straining Toyota's ability to deliver vehicles like the Camry, and with the one available Camry now in San Jose, where I originally said I wanted it, the company just didn't have any other Camry Hybrid's or even Priuses available within my new time window. The best they could offer me was the Highlander Hybrid. I gladly accepted. After all, the alternative was to rent a car, which wouldn't have been as productive a use of my time, not to mention the expense.

So, here I was enjoying the golden -- though drought-barched -- hills and succession of mission bell road markers in quiet solitude, my load of video and audio recording gear, tripod and suitcase of clothes securely stowed behind the rear seat, under the concealing Tonneau cover. The photocopy of the dealer's sticker that came with the keys and liability waiver, indicates this car originally had a third row seat. Gratefully, it had been removed prior to my driving the car. I needed that space. I was going to be audio and video recording the conference, which was to feature Andy Grove, the latest high-profile champion of plug-in, electric vehicles.

As you might imagine, I was keenly interested to see what kind of fuel economy the vehicle would deliver, and my aim was to drive conservatively, keeping it between 65-70 much of the time. The dealer's sticker indicates that city mileage is 27 mpg, while highway is 25. That's pretty accurate from my experience. The best I managed -- 26.7 -- was on the leg between Malibu and Santa Barbara.

From Santa Barbara, the GPS took me over the mountains on Highway 154, climbing to nearly 700 meters into the coastal clouds that shrouded the top of the peaks -- the elevation provided by the Garmin. The Highlander handled the twists and turns of San Marcos Pass with ease and when I finally got a chance to pass the pokey motorist ahead of me, the SUV fairly leapt into action, demonstrating power of the V-6 and Synergy Drive combination.

On the inland side of the pass, it was if I had entered Shangri-La -- in fact, the 1937 Frank Capra classic was filmed near here in the Ojai Valley. The dull, monochromatic overcast that had dogged my way west and turned the Pacific Ocean steel gray parted and ahead of me was a beautiful sparkling lake and golden-hued valley. I could live here, I commented to myself, enthralled by the vista. I regained some of the lost mpg on the long coast down towards Lake Cachuma, where a hovering fire-fighting helicopter appeared to be collecting water.

I spent the afternoon with two colleagues, one of whom had driven up from Los Angeles in his Camry Hybrid, which allowed me to compare mileage. He got 38 mpg compared to my 26, confirming in my mind that between the two, if you don't need that third row of seats and the ability to tow a boat trailer, you'd be miles per gallon ahead with the Camry.

After a brief tour of my colleague's horse ranch and an intense business planning meeting -- punctuated by a great lunch next to the pool (yes, I could definitely get used to this life) -- I said my goodbyes, stopping to program in a motel in San Luis Obispo. The Highland and the GPS (definitely a great combination) sped me back towards the 101 and Pismo Beach. From there I turned inland and as the sun set over the Pacific I pulled into the motel, connected to the Internet, did a little work, and then went to dinner, which I shared briefly with my wife via mobile phone.

Next morning, I updated the news on EV World, handled my email, paid my bill and headed for Paso Robles. The climb out of SLO is a long one, but again, the Highlander responded well, the mileage sagging to around 24 mpg. Just south of "Robbers' Pass, I again left the 101 and headed deeper into the central coast ranch country, climbing ever higher. Eventually, I found my way on to a single lane dirt road that dead-ends at the entrance to Todd Fisher's reclusive ranch/sound stage/museum archive. Todd is the son of actress Debbie Reynolds and it is here that much of her collection of Hollywood memorabilia is stored in a secure, climate controlled vault. The family is building a museum to house the collection in Tennessee, but while construction is underway, some of the film industry's most famous fashion icons -- Marilyn Monroe's "subway dress" and two pairs of the ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz" -- as well as equally famous film props are stored here.

With his fingers on the pulse of seemingly countless projects -- he has just built a television station in the Caribbean, installed a 4.5kWh PV system at a nearby vineyard, and is building a film sound stage on the property -- he kindly took time to show me around, briefly opening the vault, as well as showing me his own 6kWh PV system, with which he powers the ranch and his Toyota RAV4 EV.

After lunch at a nearby watering hole with Todd and his lovely daughter -- who is starting a line of "green" lingerie made from organic cotton -- I punched in the address of the Hotel Montgomery in San Jose and sped north again.

Good thing I had my MP3 player with me and the Highlander has an auxilliary jack in its AM/FM radio. Beyond cowboy and Christian radio stations, there's not much to listen to on the 200 miles north to San Francisco. Stopping to use the bathroom and grab a chocolate milk shake, I pulled my MP3 player and connecting cable from my equipment bag and completed the rest of the trip to the strains of Phanton of the Opera, the Kingston Trio and John Denver -- okay, so my taste in music is a bit dated.

The wine country of San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties gradually gives way to the vegetable fields of San Benito and Santa Clara, where what I presume to be migrant workers were tending vast fields of lettuce. Talk about hot, boring, backbreaking work. Thankfully for their sake, a good breeze was blowing, one that I was heading straight into, cutting my mileage down to between 24 and 25 mpg.

I had to stop once to refuel. Despite Toyota generously providing me with a full tank of gasoline, it wasn't enough to get me all the way to San Jose. At $4.58 a gallon, keeping this vehicle full is going to be expensive, even at 25-27 miles per gallon.

The Highlander has both EV mode and Econo mode buttons, but I didn't get to try out either; the owner's manual never saw the light of day on this trip. As equipped, the MSRP on the sticker, including a $685 destination fee came in just under $40K. $39,618.00 to be precise.

While I personally am not an SUV-type of guy, I can see why people with both the need and wherewithal would find it a worthy competitor to the GM Tahoe Hybrid, which we drove earlier this summer. The Highlander gets a bit better fuel economy overall for starters, and costs quite a bit less. It also enjoys the benefit of that Toyota quality "glow", which can be very important.

When I finally dropped the Highlander Hybrid off at San Jose airport, it was dust covered like the old priests and Indians who had traipsed El Camino Real centuries before. Over four eventful days, it had reliability carried me to multiple destinations and meetings with interesting people and fascinating places.

Thank you Toyota for being flexible and making it possible... and I plan to take you up on that Camry Hybrid offer someday soon. This time I promise I'll try to stick with Plan A.

Times Article Viewed: 10204
Published: 27-Jul-2008

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