Traverse City Record-Eagle

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December 9, 2012

Cargazing: Highlander hybrid has a lot to offer

Like many drivers, you probably want to be environmentally conscious, conserve on fuel and be as green as possible while meeting the transportation needs of a growing family with friends.

If your passenger list is near seven, and you are aghast at the prospect of owning a minivan, look no further. The Toyota Highlander Hybrid is just the ticket. Well, maybe, if you can get past the sticker shock.

The up-sized Highlander is a mid-sized crossover SUV with three rows of seats, a roomy cabin offering entertainment for the kids, a comfortable ride in front rows and the highest fuel economy on the road at 28 miles per gallon.

While the competition does not come close in fuel savings, the hybrid costs around $7,500 more than a conventional Highlander. Still, the hybrid is a towering SUV with amenities galore. You could easily spend more for a Lexus or Mercedes without the hybrid technology.

Powering the Highlander is a V6 engine and a trio of electric motors that work seamlessly together with little awareness of which mode is in use. In fact, the only time the hybrid technology is heard is when you stomp on the gas pedal. Doing so will take you and your 4,762- pound SUV from zero to 60 miles per hour in a quick 7.5 seconds.

A third motor sends extra power to the rear wheels under acceleration while the remaining two regenerate and send power (torque) to a continuously variable transmission. A dash mounted EV mode allows the SUV to purr along slowly on full electric power, albeit for a short time.

The Highlander hybrid will also tow up to a 3,500-pound payload.

Interstate travel is effortless for the Highlander. It cruises along quietly and has the acceleration to pass when needed. Electric steering provides a lighter feel when compared with standard hydraulic systems but the mpg trade-off seems worthwhile. Likewise, regenerative brakes feel softer in the pedal but function well, and add to the electric experience.

City driving with its stop and go traffic patterns is where the Hybrid shines. Compared with the Honda Pilot, the Highlander hybrid fuel savings are nearly eight miles per gallon better.

Hybrid SUVs are available in two models, Base and Limited with prices ranging from the mid $30s to the low $40s. The Limited model I drove for a week was loaded with what I call the "journalist package," nearly every option available from the manufacturer. It does allow reporters to try the latest equipment. It also kicks up the bottom line.

Interior amenities include full leather, multi-adjustable front seats, sliding and reclining second row seats and a vinyl covered third row seat suitable for children that stows flat when not in use. Available cargo storage space inside the Highlander is just over 94 cubic feet.

Adding to the driving experience is a DVD-based navigation touch screen, backup camera, JBL sound system and full connectivity package including two wireless headphones for the rear-screen entertainment system.

There is no argument that the Highlander hybrid is good for the environment. Consumers will need to do the math to determine if the purchase price makes sense for their daily commute and pocketbook. Go green.

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