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Toyota’s Highlander Hybrid SUV has a bigger engine than the nonhybrid version, costing it some fuel efficiency.
Toyota’s Highlander Hybrid SUV has a bigger engine than the nonhybrid version, costing it some fuel efficiency. (Toyota Photos)

Another Toyota hybrid

Prius and Camry save on gas, but Highlander opts for power, room

If this is the future, I'm not ready for it.

Today's test vehicle, the 2008 second-generation Toyota Highlander Hybrid SUV, beeps and displays the word "ready" when you turn the ignition key. I sat quietly in my driveway and waited 30 seconds or so before hearing the 3.3-liter V-6 kick in to recharge the batteries.

It reminded me of the early-generation digital camera I bought about a dozen years ago. The shutter button was silent, so the only way to confirm a photo had been taken was via a tiny flashing light. Within the year, the manufacturer offered a software upgrade -- it included the addition of an audible shutter release.

Maybe that was just to assuage traditionalists, but the sense of sound always has been part of the driving experience. Once, we used our ears to adjust carburetors and monitor our vehicles for exhaust leaks, squeaky brakes, thumping tires, and noisy bearings or pumps. Many of us still like the sound of a tuned exhaust and the growl of a motor starting and running smoothly.

Now, it seems, silence has become golden when it comes to cars. It certainly is to Toyota, which gets about $7,000 more for a gas-electric Highlander than the regular version. The extra money buys more weight, slightly better fuel economy, and the you-can't-put-a-price-on-it sense of being green. Expect the standard four-cylinder non hybrid to come close to matching the 27.2 miles per gallon we got with the hybrid.

Don't buy this car expecting to save on gas. It's doubtful that you will ever come close to recouping the added initial vehicle cost in fuel savings. And somewhere down the line there's going to be a massive recycling problem -- hybrids eventually produce spent nickel metal hydride batteries.

One of the basic requirements of driving a hybrid is monitoring the energy monitor screen to see how close you can come to reaching the elusive 50 miles per gallon standard. But in the Highlander, it quickly becomes apparent that 30 miles per gallon will be an achievement.

Thus, instead of touting the economical features of this Highlander, which is new for 2008, Toyota instead is promoting its roominess and power.

But it's actually not that big. Our test car was nominally a seven-passenger, however, good luck fitting more than four normal-sized people in it. If you're considering this SUV as an alternative to the stigma of a minivan, do yourself a favor and be stigmatized.

The Highlander has sliding second-row seats and a middle section that can be removed to allow access to a tiny third-row seat that you're better advised to leave folded down for cargo carrying. In the interest of full testing, I climbed back there. My head was jammed against the roof and there wasn't enough legroom to even raise the second-row seats to their normal position. In addition, Toyota has stolen every inch it can elsewhere in the vehicle, leaving taller drivers barely enough room for a comfortable driving position.

Our base version carried a hefty $36,633 price tag, and an even more expensive Limited model is on the way, with heated, leather-trimmed seats, a fancier sound system, standard moonroof, and automatic climate control features.

Now that I've trashed the Highlander's reason for being, it should be said that it seems to have Toyota's traditional build quality. Acceleration is exemplary. The instrumentation is clear, with the exception of a kilowatt/power meter that seems as extraneous as the tachometers on most of today's vehicles.

Handling is satisfactory, but the extra weight of the hybrid and four-wheel-drive systems take a toll. Braking is fine until the final feet when the drive train disengages and the vehicle tends to surge forward a bit.

Toyota makes a wide array of vehicles, virtually all of them highly rated and better suited to their niche than this new Highlander.

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, the model year was incorrect for the Toyota Highlander Hybrid reviewed in Saturday's Automotive section. It was a 2007 model. The accompanying photos were of a 2008 Highlander, which is not yet available. Also, while the reviewer waited 30 seconds before putting the car in gear after turning the ignition key, the car can be driven immediately.)