Toyota Highlander Hybrid -- Review: Even if you’re the stick-your-head-in-the-sand type, you know about rising crude oil prices. Simply skipping the newspaper headlines or turning off the evening news doesn’t make it go away, because every time you gas up your car you’re spending more money, and those oil-change coupons from your dealer just went from $19.95 to $25.95. Plus, it’s harder to find a reasonably priced airline ticket, your groceries are more expensive because of increased transportation costs, and your stock portfolio is suffering due to concerns over the economic impact.
Try as you might, it’s a reality that you can’t ignore: The price of crude oil impacts everyone. Given that scenario, more people are considering hybrid vehicles, and companies such as Toyota are making it easier by expanding the list of available gas/electric models during the next several years. In fact, Toyota boldly predicts that 25 percent of its sales will be hybrid-powered vehicles by the year 2010. What a perfect scenario – super efficient cars and SUVs for sale just when we really need to focus on our oil consumption. The Toyota Prius, with real-world results of about 45 mpg and its Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (SULEV) rating, is doing its best to polish the Hybrid badge.
On the other end of the spectrum is the new 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, which shares the Prius’ SULEV rating but, with our staff driving, yielded only 19.8 mpg. Apparently, we lost something in the translation. Yes, the Highlander Hybrid bears a SULEV rating, but a hybrid that gets less than 20 mpg? On the plus side, the 2006 Highlander Hybrid is like nearly all Toyotas we’ve tested, meaning it impresses overall in terms of quality and attention to detail. And the SULEV rating equates to fewer pollutants spewed from this SUV’s tailpipe – no one will complain about that. Finally, unlike gas/electric versions of the Honda Civic and Ford Escape, this hybrid offers a punch of added performance compared to its gas counterpart.
But, unlike those other models, this Toyota fails to make economic sense. The fuel mileage was unimpressive, and was actually much lower than the Ford Escape Hybrid we tested, which runs about $10-15,000 less. Consider also that the gas-powered Highlander saves you about $7,000, which will pay for plenty of fuel, though you’ll get fewer standard features. Also, the regular model already offers sufficient power from its V6, which is rated to get as much as 24 mpg on the highway, and some drivers could see better fuel economy with the gas version rather than the hybrid powertrain – depending on how they’re driven. Given these points, we’re not sure there’s a market for a livelier, more complex, more expensive, more “green” SUV that offers less fuel economy…especially when gas hovers around $3.00 per gallon. Most buyers interested in the Highlander are better off with the non-hybrid model, and can maximize their fuel mileage by maintaining proper tire pressures, driving at reasonable speeds, and carrying extra weight only when necessary. And for buyers who are intent on purchasing an SUV that offers real fuel savings, stop by your Ford dealer for a look at the Escape Hybrid.
Billed as the first seven-passenger gas/electric sport utility vehicle, the 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is available in base and Limited trims, each featuring either front- or four-wheel drive. Starting at $33,595, including a $565 destination charge, the base front-wheel-drive model includes an eight-way power driver’s seat; a third-row folding seat; heated mirrors; a trip computer; a roof rack; rear privacy glass; and the usual array of power options and amenities, like power door locks and air conditioning. Four-wheel-drive base models start at $34,995. An optional “Package 1” adds fog lights, a rear spoiler, steering wheel audio controls, a JBL sound system with a cassette player and six-disc CD changer, and a power moonroof.
Shoppers looking for a bit more luxury can move up to the front-wheel-drive Limited model for $38,455. Standard are all of the contents of the base model’s Package 1, as well as heated front seats; leather on the seats, shift knob, and steering wheel; burled woodgrain interior trim; automatic climate control; a four-way power front passenger seat; an anti-theft alarm; an electrochromic interior rearview mirror with a compass; and automatic headlights. Four-wheel-drive Limited models start at $39,855.
The only factory option is a navigation system with a hybrid energy monitor and a touch screen. Our test vehicle was a four-wheel-drive Limited model with the optional navigation system, a port/dealer-installed tow hitch receiver, and a port/dealer-installed Preferred Accessory Package, which included a set of carpeted floor mats, a cargo net, a first aid kit, and a glass breakage sensor. The final tally came to $42,711, including the $565 destination charge. For comparison, consider that the non-hybrid, front-wheel-drive 2006 Toyota Highlander with the third row seat (most comparable to the base Hybrid model) starts at $27,005 (including a $565 destination charge). The top-o’-the-line four-wheel-drive Limited model goes for $32,145.
That’s a $6,590 premium for the base Hybrid and a $7,430 premium for the macked-out Limited Hybrid. However, those numbers are a bit deceiving, since the Hybrid adds more standard features, like an anti-theft system, an in-glass radio antenna, daytime running lights, an exterior temperature gauge, a trip computer, electroluminescent instrumentation, a universal garage door opener, side and side curtain airbags, a power driver’s seat, a front passenger folding seat, and alloy wheels.