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2012 Toyota Highlaner Hybrid Road Test

by Martha Hindes

2012 Green SUV Buyer's Guide - Road & Travel Top 10 Picks

Audi Q7 TDI Clean Diesel

Jeep Grand Cherokee FFV

BMW X5 xDrive 35d Diesel

Lexus RX 450h Hybrid

Hyundai Tucson Hybrid

Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid

So it's time for a new vehicle so the checklist reads like this: Minivan space and utility without being a minivan; seating for seven; comfortable riding on long trips; enjoyable amenities; fuel miserly; environmentally conscious; affordable. To meet all those requirements in something to drive, what are your options? How about the 2012 Toyota Highlander hybrid SUV. Period.

Finding a car-based seven passenger vehicle that meets all those criteria doesn't leave much room for maneuvering if a hybrid is on the wish list. While other hybrid sport utility or crossover utility models around normally carry five, finding something for seven in car-based comfort can limit the pickings. For someone thinking short term, that list probably could use some serious editing. But a consideration of long-term implications could make it a different story if eventual payback is an option.

We're not implying that the Highlander hybrid is cheap. Like any other vehicle with hybrid technology, it isn't. Paying hybrid pricing to save at the gas pump can be an exercise in guessing where fuel price hikes will end and whether that assumed price threshold would justify the large price difference in a hybrid and a conventional gasoline powered vehicle. A good rule of thumb is to expect an 8 year time span to start generating fuel savings when considering a non-hybrid comparison.

But assuming longevity is in the plans and the current $4-plus per gallon cost of gasoline seems like a temporary  plateau for unlimited escalating fuel costs, here's what the Highlander can offer that could make it the best vehicle deal around.

First it's a Toyota. And despite some recent problems that are fading from memory, the Japanese automaker still seems to enjoy a rock solid reputation for quality. Ancient Toyotas still cruise American roads with no thought of retirement. Presumably hybrid technology will wear as well as it has on other Toyota hybrids around for more than a decade.

Second, Toyota is one of two global automakers to jump into the hybrid camp when the idea seemed downright ridiculous on one hand and a cash guzzling bottomless pit on the other. The fact that Toyota continued the development despite those impediments gave it the time to get it right, a fact played out in the large number of hybrid vehicles in Toyota new car showrooms.

Here's a menu with some Highlander amenities one should expect when venturing into hybrid-land. How about standard three-row seating that includes climate control for those at the back. How many times do junior-sized passengers complain about being too hot or too cold because they're not up front?

Standard four-wheel drive with intelligence on all Highlander hybrids has to be a big selling point, especially in climates that need power at all four corners to avoid being trapped in a northern winter snow bank. And needing fewer fillups at the gas pump can let one sleep at night at a time steep future price hikes appear to be a dismal but unavoidable reality.

The Highlander hybrid comes in two flavors, the aptly-named Highlander model, and the upscale Limited edition. Power comes from Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive with a new, more powerful 3.5-liter V-6 gasoline engine for 2012 as its electricity-generating foundation, mated to a continuously variable transmission. Combined with electric motor power, it generates a 280 net horsepower rating. Separate electric driving motors provide power to rear and front wheels. Resulting fuel economy numbers are 28 for both city and highway driving. Regular 87 octane or higher fuel is used when refills are needed since this is not a plug-in variety vehicle.

How do some fuel savings occur? For greater fuel economy in some low speed, stop and go driving conditions, there's an "EV" (for electric vehicle) switch that can be activated by the driver. That allows electric-only driving for a limited distance that improves fuel economy. Engine shut down during idling saves more. And a new addition this year is an ECON (economy) drive mode switch that adjusts the throttle during acceleration for more fuel saving benefits.

Advanced dynamics underscore the Highlander hybrid during driving. It's part of Toyota's complex safety and handling systems designed to balance out road performance, traction and braking and prevent or correct such harrowing conditions as skids, slides or wheel spins. Think of it as a safety blanket on wheels. Electronically controlled braking takes the worry out of stops. And a seven air bag system is there if the unthinkable accident does occur.

The Highlander hybrid signals its unique qualities with some subtle signature trim elements, including blue lens covers on its projector beam headlamps. (Maybe it would identify a compatriot Highlander hybrid owner approaching ahead.) Well appointed interior amenities can be enhanced with a wealth of upscale features including a top-line moon roof with sunshade.

Base pricing of $38,715 includes about a $10K premium over the non-hybrid Highlander, a definite consideration in a checklist's bottom line. But if everything adds up and the calculator is still engaged at "total," there might be another "sold" sign on the Toyota dealership lot. Then a fuel savings list can start taking its place.

For more info on Toyota brands, click here.

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