that every auto maker with a penchant for going
hybrid has chosen its own niche for the honors.
So far, Ford has captured the compact sport utility
segment with its Escape and Mercury Mariner, Honda
took the subcompact prize with its innovative
two-person Insight, GM honed in on hunky, full-duty
pickup trucks with a mild hybrid powertrain. And
Toyota? Well the Japanese auto maker with experience
selling fuel efficient green cars in its own humanity-packed
country has decided to go -- everywhere.
addition to its earliest Prius five-door and later
Lexus RX400h, Toyota and company added a hybrid
version of its best-selling Highlander sport utility
to its fleet, the only available full-size, seven
passenger sport utility in 2006 green stables.
Bringing out dramatically different models with
leading edge, innovative high tech has to be a
difficult task. Authoritative handling and hauling
seem to belie the kind of finesse one would find
in a luxury automobile. But Highlander performs
on the amenities side as well as it does with
technology, adding a Limited edition equipped
with the most in-demand luxury items including
touch screen DVD nav system. We appreciated its
smooth ride that barely hinted of its "green"
roots except for a slight generator whine instead
of an exhaust rumble.
the Highlander's hood is a 3.3-liter V-6 gasoline-powered
engine that gets a performance boost and fuel
economy diet when mixed with high-torque electric
drive motor-generators. Toyota calls the system
"Hybrid Synergy Drive." It doubles the
power output of the smaller sibling Prius auto
that has a minimal demand for brute force capability.
Horsepower of the combined Highlander drive systems
is a forceful 268, giving the "intelligent"
electric four-wheel-drive version of Highlander
enough oomph to go zero-to-60 in a mere 7.3 seconds,
or to tow about 3,500 pounds. But wait at a stoplight
and, unless it's expected, there's the initially
unnerving realization that everything has stopped.
Like most hybrids, Highlander simply turns itself
off momentarily rather than waste fuel idling.
In the "who's counting" category, we
are. Impressive numbers fall off the page in succession.
4X2 model gets a 33 city/28 highway miles per
gallon EPA rating, at a time most large SUVs can
barely live in the mid-to-high teens mileage wise.
Highlander's "intelligent" 4X4 system
earns 31/27 MPG, but includes extended electric-mode
operation for low speed or stop-and-go driving.
As with other hybrid systems, the Highlander rebuilds
its own electricity supply during such actions
as braking. Energy creating friction recharges
the onboard battery pack to ease engine use or
run the vehicle without it. Balance its $35,553
pricetag as tested (4x4) against expected fuel
savings over the long haul.