Pushing the hybrid envelope with the semi-electric Highlander | SummitDaily.com

Pushing the hybrid envelope with the semi-electric Highlander

ANDY STONHOUSE
special to the daily

Special to the Daily

The odd thing about an SUV version of the Prius – if that is indeed part of the idea at work with the Highlander Hybrid – is that it’s not a completely insane notion.

Gas-electric technology blends together to save gas and produce fewer emissions, and the resulting Car of the Future, available today, is reconfigured in a mode that’s fulsome family mover, completely weatherproof and wonderfully comfortable. Big enough to haul the whole crew but also not so large that it threatens to block out the sun. It all seems like a pretty cool mix.

Like most hybrids – with the exception of those humongously efficient but still considerably irregular Priuses – the notion is “some” fuel savings (mostly in stop-and-go urban driving) and an effort to support the general forward movement of the technology. 50 mpg you will not get.

The hybrid system in the Highlander does indeed make it more fuel efficient than its regular gas-only version, but don’t expect to forgo fueling the vehicle for life. Not until the 2032 version.

I could never quite reach a happy medium with the Highlander’s performance (my test was during some very cold weather last week, and that didn’t help matters), but my estimations saw the vehicle getting about 21 mpg on average.

The EPA states it, in those screwy hybrid inverse proportions, as being able to achieve an electrically assisted 27 in the city and 25 on the highway (versus 17 city and 23 highway in the 4WD gas-only version), and that doesn’t seem impossible, especially during warmer driving circumstances and a more attentive driving style.

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One of the coolest innovations of the new HH is a full “electric vehicle” mode which, when not employed during the power-sucking depths of the winter, will allow you to drive the Highlander up to 25 mph in a full electric mode. There’s also an “Econ” mode with helps smooth out the occasionally revvy nature of the car’s electronic continuously variable transmission.

The system is marvelously complicated but largely seamless to the driver: a 3.3 liter V6 works in combination with two front-mounted electrical motors and a third rear motor for the all-wheel drive system, producing a combined total of 270 net horsepower.

The tachometer is replaced by a blue-lit kilowatt gauge offering you the ability to pattern your gas pedal pressure to more efficient power use, although that’s sure to be a moot point when driving the passes or operating the automobile in Breck on the coldest day of January. A new, handy mid-console mounted color monitor offers feedback on energy flow between the gas motor, electric motors, regenerative brakes and the battery, plus mileage averages and tire pressure.

Overall, you’ll still get some weird electric hisses and pops of all the various systems at work (especially after you turn the motor off), but they shouldn’t scare you too much.

Driving is also not as lurchy as in hybrids past; the electric motor and gas engine interface nicely and conspire to provide both slow, quiet starts or, when necessary, powerful bolts of acceleration. Steering feel is good and the whole Highlander Hybrid is comfortable to drive and, one would assume, fully capable on snowy pass roads. With only one real gear the result of the CVT transmission, a Prius-inspired engine braking mode will help you with descents and de-acceleration.

The 2008 Highlander has, like many of its family, been given a curvy makeover that’s futuristic and attractive but, in my opinion, totally wussed out the looks of the new Land Cruiser and the Lexus LX570, which share many of the same complex, convex curves.

The HH’s interior is quite delightful, really, with blonde hardwood-styled surfaces and a clean if not plastic-heavy layout. A full-sized touchscreen navigation screen, containing a backup camera, is part of a system which has become infinitely more intuitive and is remarkably easy to use with a Bluetooth-equipped phone. Many functions are now very happily relocated to hard, external buttons (versus on-screen commands); my absolute favorites are a pair of actual temperature knobs, part of a slightly busy but comprehensive heating and A/C control panel.

Four console cupholders and a couple more bottle-holding slots in the doors ensure efficient hydration of all those inside the machine.

Leather-surfaced seating, heated in the front row, turns into a curiously inventive second-row setup which features either two captains chairs and a center-mounted plastic utility tray or – hey presto ” a weird little jump seat which can be stored in a space underneath the center console, adding a third second-row seating position for riders with extremely thin rear ends.

Being a semi-electric vehicle (or a rolling generator, depending on how you see the system), the HH is chock ablock with power points ” two outlets in the front console, more in the back and a dedicated two-pronged plug-in in the rear.

The rear passengers, including a further two who can be squeezed into the fold-down third row, will enjoy the rear DVD system and a rear air conditioning system with vents for everyone in the back. A remote power liftgate also aids in loading the goods.

Drivers looking for a nice vehicle that advances the notions of hybrid technology and can still cart the fam-damily around the hills will find fewer than the Highlander.

Price as tested: $47,714

Powertrain: Hybrid Synergy Drive system with 3.3 liter V6, 270 horsepower total, capable of all-electric mode, electronic continuously variable transmission

Includes: Navigation system, rear seat DVD entertainment system, dual zone heating controls and rear air conditioner, 19 inch alloy wheels

EPA mileage: 27 city, 25 highway