CNHI News Service
— Think of a Chevy Suburban - big and roomy inside. The feds use them to cart all sorts of people and things.
Now, forget the stodgy look that is inherent with the black, G-man car. The 2013 Toyota Highlander has lots of room, stylish lines and terrific fuel economy with the hybrid model.
Highlander Hybrid owners can pass most gas stations, leaving their counterpart crossover utility vehicles in the dust.
Whether you are chasing fugitives across state lines, transferring high-profile types, or just shuttling the kids and their friends, you can be fossil fuel-friendly with 28 miles per gallon most of the time.
With up to three rows of seating for seven, the Highlander can be a viable alternative for the minivan without the stigma of sliding doors.
Third-row seating is ideal for young people. When not needed, they fold flat, as do second-row seats with the flip of a rear cargo latch, creating a cavernous cargo space of nearly 100 cubic feet - less than the Suburban but ample for most shopping trips.
Base and limited hybrid models include multi-powered front seats and sliding and reclining
second-row seats, with a center stow area for even more legroom.
Powering the Highlander Hybrid is a V6 engine and three electric motors that deliver up to 280 horsepower to its front wheels for normal driving conditions.
If more acceleration or traction are needed, the rear wheels are driven by a separate motor. Each drive option delivers power through a continuously variable transmission.
While the hybrid model with its electric motors weighs more than the Suburban at 6,150 pounds, performance does not suffer. In the 0 to 60 mph sprint, it reaches the mark at 7.5 seconds, compared with 9 seconds for the V8 powered Suburban. To be fair, the Suburban can out-tow the hybrid by more than twice its 3,500 pound capacity.
The limited model Highlander Hybrid I tested for a week included every creature comfort available, minus a rear-seat entertainment system.
In city and interstate driving, the Highlander performed flawlessly, delivering a quiet and comfortable ride. The back-and-forth between electric motors and gas engines was so seamless. I found that regenerative braking does take some getting used to, but pedal feel improves with use.
Perforated leather seats - with lumbar support and eight-way power adjustments - are comfortable and ideal for long trips.
My only complaint was with its navigation system. Unlike earlier Highlanders, this unit seemed to lack frequency of audio prompts and driving directions, and the screen is smaller. It looks like a cheap imitation of a standalone navi system you'd buy in a big box store.
The voice is harsh. Little warning is given with upcoming turns, and some audio directions are inaccurate. All of this seems surprising from Toyota, known for its quality.
Similarly equipped SUVs include the higher priced Volkswagen Touareg hybrid and the Lexus RX 450 hybrid, each seating just five.
If there is a downside to all the luxury and economy onboard the Highlander Hybrid, it would be price. Even with long-term payback on fuel, it would be a while before the up-front investment pays off.
Still, the Highlander Hybrid is a lot of car for the money, and it costs less than the aforementioned Suburban and $10,000 less than the Chevy's flex-fuel model.
Len Ingrassia is an automotive columnist for CNHI News Service. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org