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Car Review: Toyota Highlander Hybrid


Sticker price: $34,385
Dealer cost: $31,015
Horsepower: 209
MPG: 27 city, 25 highway
3-yr resale value: 50%
5-yr resale value: 36%
Cargo space: 42.3 cu. ft.

Highs: Good gas mileage; available third-row seat
Lows: Ungainly system to convert second row bench to captain's chairs; options can run up price

Signs of strain on family budgets -- including record high gas prices and slumping home values -- sent sales of trucks and SUVs down 11% in February compared with a year ago. While everyone blanches at $80 trips to the gas pump, some families simply can't do without the ability to haul six or seven people.

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That's where the Toyota Highlander Hybrid comes in. As a crossover SUV, it doesn't have the mom-mobile stigma of a minivan. It's built with a unibody structure -- rather than body bolted to frame -- so it handles more like a car than a truck. And because it's a hybrid, it can get up to 27 miles per gallon in city driving. The combination of fuel economy, roominess and resale value earned the Highlander Hybrid Kiplinger's award for Best New Large and Midsize Crossover.

New for 2008

Toyota redesigned the Highlander for 2008. It's four inches longer and three inches wider than last year's model and has more interior room -- most notably in the width of the seats and increased legroom for front and second-row passengers. Plus, access to the third-row seat is easier thanks to second-row seats that easily slide forward.

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The hybrid Highlander has the same powertrain as last year's model -- a 3.3-liter gas engine combined with electric motors that together produce 209 horsepower. But acceleration is more than adequate because of torque from the electric motors. All-wheel drive is standard. (The nonhybrid Highlander, starting at $27,985, got a new 3.5-liter V6 engine with 270 horsepower. Toyota discontinued the four-cylinder version of the Highlander to avoid competing with the RAV 4.)

Because of the new EPA fuel-economy testing procedures, on paper the gas mileage has dropped (from 32 mpg city and 27 mpg highway to 27 mpg city and 25 mpg highway). But that's simply closer to real-world results.

For an SUV that's on the large size, the Highlander handles well and corners without a lot of roll. It has all the standard safety features it should -side and head-protecting curtain airbags, plus a driver's side knee airbag.

It also has Toyota's advanced electronic stability control system. Called Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM), it anticipates instability -- based on signals from a sensor that measures changes in vehicle angle and deceleration, plus speed and steering sensors -- and makes stabilizing corrections.

Quibbles

Options can add up. The third-row seat and is standard in the Limited trim level ($40,635) but is a $2,800 option on the base model. Dual-zone climate control plus automatic rear air-conditioning adds up to $1,160. The navigation system, including an upgraded stereo system and Bluetooth hands-free-phone connection, is $2,655 -- but it's not available on the base model (neither are leather seats or a sunroof).

The new Highlander also has a quirky feature called "second-row center stow seat." In other words, the center seat can be removed to go from three-seat bench to two captain's chairs -- and gain easier access to the third-row seats.

My daughter liked sitting in the back with the two-seat configuration. My quibble is that you have to manually remove the center seat and stow it in a small compartment in front of you. Couldn't some of the world's most talented automotive designers come up with a more elegant system?



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