- The Washington Times - Friday, September 12, 2008

If you play, you pay. One way or another it’s going to cost you.

You may be able to soften your pain at the pump by trading something bigger for something smaller resulting in reduced utility. Driving a Spec may be your answer; but if it’s not, your choice is diesel or gasoline-electric hybrids. The argument rages as to which makes more sense and as with the recently settled Blu-ray/HD optical disc war, manufacturers are choosing sides.

Because we are a technology-driven culture, the gasoline-electric hybrids play into our sense of future making them the darlings of the latest energy crunch.

None of the current crop of hybrids has done better in the marketplace or in the press than Toyota‘s fuel-stingy trio of Prius, Highlander Hybrid and Camry Hybrid. Toyota can’t build Priuses fast enough to supply the runaway demand for what has become the poster child of Greenies wanting to drive their color. Although the Highlander Hybrid isn’t quite the environmental icon that the Prius is, it got to the party early and is probably the best known of the hybrid SUVs. However there is still a cost.

With the purchase price of a hybrid-powered vehicle being thousands more than the traditional gas-powered version of the same vehicle - in this case the difference between the regular $29,695 base Highlander and the $35,180 base Highlander Hybrid supplied for this evaluation is $5,485 - recouping that extra up-front cost with gas-pump savings could take four to five years or longer. Keep a hybrid long enough and at some point you will also need to replace a worn-out battery pack. Think $4,000 to $5,000 for new batteries and disposing of the worn-out ones. Cha-ching. If your goals are existential having to do with saving the planet and minimizing oil use rather than some sort of bottom-line cost savings, hybrids make pretty good sense.

Toyota redesigned the Highlander for 2008. It’s longer, wider and taller (4 inches, 3 inches and 1 inch respectively) than the last generation. The gas-powered version develops 270 horsepower from its 3.5-liter V6. The hybrid edition produces the same 270 maximum horsepower, but it uses three electric motors along with a 3.3-liter V6 to get there.

One motor runs the front wheels, one the rear wheels (thus qualifying it as all-wheel drive), and one starts the gas engine and charges the battery pack. A constantly variable automatic transmission (CVT) also helps stretch the fuel.

Where the regular AWD Highlander has an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 17 mpg in the city and 23 mpg on the highway, its hybrid twin’s EPA numbers are 27 city and 25 highway. A 10 mpg difference in city driving is nothing to sneeze at particularly if you do a lot of in-town slogging.

Electric propulsion comes into play only at the lower speeds, thus the lower EPA city number. During my 280-mile experience of mixed highway and city driving, the Hybrid averaged 23.7 mpg. With some concentration and practice, you could probably do a little better. Toyota claims the Hybrid can operate on batteries alone up to 30 miles per hour or so for several minutes. If you don’t mind some horn honking and fist shaking, you can probably keep to electric for much of your city driving, but it’s not easy. You must drive as though there is a raw egg between your foot and the accelerator.

Become too aggressive and the gas engine revs up. It mostly has to do with touch and patience - and flat streets help, too.

It will get better fuel economy in Miami than Seattle. Toyota provides a couple of tools to lend a hand in the form of “EV” and “Econ” driving modes. A bit redundant, the EV mode lets you drive strictly on the batteries at slower speeds. The Econ mode moderates throttle response, smoothing out throttle input and thus reducing fuel consumption.

Although Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system puts a serious dent in fuel consumption, it doesn’t add to the driving dynamics.

The regular Highlander isn’t a-barrel-of-monkeys fun to drive and neither is the hybrid version.

The four-wheel independent suspension is tuned for ride comfort rather than crisp handling. Traction control, stability control, emergency braking assist and electronic brakeforce distribution fall under the umbrella of the four-wheel anti-lock disc brake system.

Wonderfully styled and carefully assembled, the two-tone interior is roomy and comfortable. Most of the extra exterior length has been invested into a third-row fold-flat seat.

It would have been better spent elsewhere. The third-row seat is far too small for general use. The base Hybrid comes with a six-speaker audio system with CD player and auxiliary input jack, power accessories, cruise control, tilt-telescoping steering wheel with redundant audio controls, fore and aft adjustable 40/20/40 reclining and fold-flat second-row seat, and center and overhead consoles. Opt for the $41,195 Limited version and you’ll get leather seating, faux wood interior accents, upgraded audio system, 19-inch alloy wheels, and backup camera and monitor among other features. Both versions have seven airbags including a driver’s side knee bag.

The most fuel efficient seven-passenger SUV for 2008, the Highlander Hybrid can make the most radical Greenie feel almost good about motorized propulsion. Only you can decide if it will make you feel good enough to spend the extra green up front.

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