Toyota's just-released Highlander Hybrid SUV can make it to the beach with a longboard stashed in the back.

High on the hybrid

Finally, a gas/electric
vehicle with space

Editor's note: Some information in this story appeared in an article that ran April 15, 2005, in the Sacramento Bee.

I've driven several gas/electric hybrid vehicles since Toyota introduced the Prius several years ago, and each time I come away loving the fuel economy but with suggestions regarding a typical family's space needs.

I understood that Honda's futuristic-looking Insight -- a tiny two-seater with no storage -- was made primarily for commuting, so space never was a consideration. The first Prius was a five-seat sedan with a small trunk but no fold-down seats, so cargo space was also limited. Forget camping gear or getting the whole family and their luggage to the airport. Then came the second version, with a longer, wider body and a hatchback with fold-down seats that accommodated my 9-foot-4 longboard and two big dogs. At a little more than $21,000, this Prius, with its 60/51 city/highway mileage, was a bargain.

But, I decided to wait for my dream vehicle: a hybrid SUV.

Again, Toyota is first out with its 2006 Highlander Hybrid, which became available in Hawaii last Wednesday. But nirvana comes with a high price, and the least expensive HH starts at $33,030. The four-wheel-drive version climbs to $34,430, and limited editions are even higher.

The hybrid version is about $6,840 more than a conventional V-6 Highlander. The extra charge includes $2,300 in standard equipment unavailable with the conventional model, including side curtain air bags, 17-inch alloy wheels, a tow-prep package and daytime running lights.

But for what these SUVs do, the lowest priced HH is a steal compared with the Prius, which has an unspectacular 1.5-liter, four-cylinder, 106-horsepower gas engine. The Highlander comes with a brisk 3.3-liter V-6 with 208 horsepower. Two electric-motor generators on the front-wheel-drive SUV can boost peak horsepower to 268. That's why Toyota is touting this Highlander as having the power of a V-8.

The Highlander gets 31 miles per gallon in city driving.

And it feels like it. The acceleration during my three days of using a Highlander 4x4 Limited let me easily dust off other passenger cars and trucks trying to outrun me when I wanted to merge. I was tempted to lean out the window and scream, "And it's a hybrid, you gas-guzzling sucker!"

To start the engine on the HH, you use a traditional key ignition -- unlike the Prius' button -- but like the Prius, the driver is greeted with silence. You only know you're ready to roll when a little dash light reads "ready."

And if you roll slowly, the electric motors do the work quietly. The gas engine kicks in only when the power curve becomes too much for the electrical propulsion system alone.

As for charging the batteries, the Highlander's regenerative braking system and coasting enable its electric motors to function as generators, pumping some kinetic energy into the SUV's 288-volt nickel-metal hydride battery pack.

The new electronically controlled transmission operated seamlessly, as did the stability control and traction control -- all standard.

The environmentally friendly Highlander also has standard equipment -- eight-way power driver's seat with power lumbar supports, front-seat side air bags and an engine immobilizer -- optional or unavailable on a conventional, gas-powered model.

Here's the amazing part: The gas-electric Highlander Limited is rated at 31 miles per gallon in city driving and 27 mpg on the highway (when the gas engine does the hard work). My highway driving averaged 27.1 and 31.7 city.

Toyota says this Highlander is the auto industry's first seven-passenger hybrid SUV, but it's a very tight squeeze in the third-row seat, which folds flat to create room for cargo.

So, will I buy one?

Not yet. It's still out of my range, although I love the idea of helping the environment and paying less for gas. But I have the feeling a $20,000 hybrid SUV is right around the corner.

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