DEARBORN, Michigan - Some people call it a "crossover." Others say Toyota's Highlander is a plain old midsize SUV, but built on carlike underpinnings rather than a truck chassis. Whatever it's called, the popular Highlander has been redesigned extensively for 2008, officially placed on sale in July. The hybrid-powertrain version arrives in early fall.
Weighing about 300 pounds more than its predecessor, the 2008 Highlander promises more passenger space. A new 3.5-liter V-6 engine generates 270 horsepower - 55 more than the prior Highlander's 3.3-liter V-6. (It's borrowed from Toyota's Camry, Sienna, and RAV4.) The five-speed automatic transmission includes a sequential gated shift lever.
Corporate marketing manager Brian Smith notes that the 2008 Highlander delivers more power "without compromising economy." That means gas mileage has "improved slightly," according to EPA estimates, while performance has escalated. Still, Smith calls Highlander the "industry's most fuel-efficient midsize SUV." Specifically, the two-wheel-drive Highlander earns an EPA estimate of 18 mpg in city driving and 24 mpg on the highway. Four-wheel drive reduces both estimates by 1 mpg.
Why the substantial horsepower boost? "They want power," Smith said, referring to the Highlander's likely buyers.
In addition to greater dimensions both inside and out, the Highlander gets some external detail changes. Mirrors are more bullet-shaped. Seven underbody "spats" have been installed.
All Highlanders now contain a tilt/telescoping steering wheel and a stowable second-row center seat. Toyota's navigation system incorporates a rear-view monitor. All except the base models have a backup camera, presenting a view of the area to the rear on a small screen.
Standard safety features include seven airbags. What Toyota calls Steering Cooperative Control has been added to the Vehicle Stability Control system. Cargo space has grown by 20 percent. A "Smart Key" is standard on the Highlander Limited and both Hybrid models.
Highlander Hybrids have a different grille, to accommodate greater cooling capacity. Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system includes a 3.3-liter V-6 that generates 208 horsepower, for a total of 270 horsepower (including battery power). Offered only with four-wheel drive, the Highlander Hybrid gets an EPA estimate of 27 mpg in city driving and 25 mpg on the highway (about a 1 mpg improvement, according to Toyota).
Unlike the prior Highlander Hybrid, the 2008 model can run on battery power alone, by touching the EV Mode button. To do so, the vehicle must be charged to a specified level, with the engine warm. Speed is limited to about 25 mph. Under ideal conditions, the Highlander Hybrid can travel 1 to 2 miles using battery power, before the gasoline engine starts up. An EV icon lights when this Highlander is in electric mode.
Acceleration in a gas-engine Highlander bears out Toyota's claim for more additional, useful power. Smooth response adds to the experience, and passing reactions are generally prompt. At times, though, the powertrain seems to hold the vehicle back a bit - an inconsistency that detracts from the Highlander's overall refinement.
Satisfying ride comfort helps boost the attraction, though. Steering is relatively light, but handling ranks a cut above the midsize-SUV norm.
The Hybrid's new EV button is appealing, but keeping the vehicle in electric mode isn't easy. The new ECON mode, which promises greater gas mileage, holds you back significantly. Clearly, it's not the mode to be in if you expect to pass or merge anytime soon. Initial startup with the Hybrid is somewhat sluggish, but performance is good once the system catches hold and evens out. Ride comfort is hard to beat for an SUV of any stripe. Body lean is noticeable on expressway on-ramps, but not bad for an SUV.
Front-seat occupants get plenty of space in any Highlander. Second-row side seats also have abundant room, but the skinny center position isn't inviting at all.
Highlanders come in five grades: base model, Sport, and Limited; plus base-model and Limited editions of the Hybrid. Standard wheels on base models hold 17-inch tires, while others get 19-inch rubber. Prices for gas-engine Highlanders range from $27,300 to $34,150.
Smith points out that nearly 800,000 Highlanders have been sold, making it the top Toyota seller. The Highlander Hybrid accounted for 31,000 sales in 2006, out of 170,000 gasoline/electric vehicles sold by Toyota and its Lexus luxury division. Hybrid sales are expected to top a quarter-million in 2007. "Sometime in the next decade," Smith said, Toyota/Lexus expects to sell a million hybrids per year.