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2006 Toyota Hybrid Highlander

by Martha Hindes

Toyota Hybrid Highlander
2006 Toyota Hybrid Highlander Interior
Seems 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.

In 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.

Under 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.

Highlander's 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.