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  • 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

    Posted on November 30th, 2005 ninarussin

    Fuel efficient hybrid with available all-wheel drive and seating for seven

    By Nina Russin

    2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

    2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

    The Toyota Highlander Hybrid sport-utility vehicle is a more affordable alternative to the Lexus RX 400h, with seating for seven and available all-wheel drive.

    The recent hike in gas prices has made a lot of drivers think about more economical alternatives to traditional gas-powered cars. The Lexus RX 400h is one such option:  a mid-sized sport-utility vehicle with the fuel economy of a compact car.

    However the Lexus’ standard price of close to $50,000 is beyond the reach of many new car shoppers, especially those who invest heavily in athletic gear. The Toyota Highlander Hybrid that rolled into dealerships in June in a more affordable alternative to the Lexus. Base price for the front-wheel drive version is $33,030. The four-wheel drive base model starts at $34,430.

    Hybrid synergy drive combines exceptional fuel economy and power

    The seven-seat Highlander uses the same hybrid synergy drive technology as the Toyota Prius, but with different calibrations. While engineers prioritized fuel economy on the Prius, the Highlander strikes a balance between better gas mileage and low-end torque.

    The four-wheel drive Highlander averages 30 miles-per gallon at the pump, but it can also accelerate from zero-to-sixty miles-per-hour in 7.3 seconds. The key is an extra electric drive motor on the rear axle. Since electric motors develop full power at very low speeds, the hybrid Highlander actually has better acceleration than its gas-powered cousin.

    While most conventional cars with all-wheel drive have relatively poor gas mileage, the hybrid is just the opposite. The second electric motor actually boosts fuel economy for the four-wheel drive Highlander over the front-wheel drive version.

    The 3.3-liter V6 gas engine is essentially the same block used on the conventional Highlander, with slightly different valve timing to accommodate the hybrid components, and electronic throttle control (drive by wire). It is a smooth, reliable engine with none of the vibration problems than can plague some V-6 blocks.

    Unlike some hybrids, the Toyota models use electric motors to drive the accessories, such as the power steering pump, water pump and air conditioner. The noticeable advantages are reduced engine noise and better fuel efficiency.

    While the air conditioning compressor shuts off on many hybrids when the car is idling, this one does not. For those individuals who live in hot climates, that feature alone gives the Toyota hybrids a huge competitive advantage.

    The Highlander Hybrid uses a nickel metal hydride battery pack that is located under the second-row seat. Simply put, it’s the same type of battery used in personal computers. While the conventional powertrain components are covered by a 3 year, 36,000 mile warranty, Toyota covers all hybrid components with a standard 8-year, 100,000 mile warranty. All models also come with three years of free roadside assistance.

    Fully-independent suspension provides exceptional ride and handling.

    Like the conventional Highlander, the hybrid version comes with standard fully-independent suspension for a compliant ride.  In fact, the nicest thing about driving the Highlander Hybrid is the fact that the technology is essentially invisible.

    Drivers who have never been behind the wheel of a hybrid will notice that the ignition starts the electric motor only. The gas engine kicks in when necessary, such as during acceleration.

    Also, the hybrid uses an infinitely variable transmission, so there is none of the “shift shock” that one feels when driving a conventional automatic. Other than that, the Highlander Hybrid rides and handles pretty much like the gas-powered version. It just accelerates a lot harder, and goes further on a tank of gas.

    I had an opportunity to drive the Highlander Hybrid last fall in northern California on both paved and dirt roads. The mid-sized platform is relatively nimble, with a turning radius of about 37-½ feet. Ground clearance on the all-wheel drive model is 7.3 inches: more than enough to meet most drivers needs in snow and on unimproved roads.

    The Highlander Hybrid felt rock solid on the highway, and maintained good traction on the winding two-lane coastal roads. The four-wheel drive system kept the vehicle in control on a fairly steep descent on a dirt road. The system automatically transfers engine power to the wheels with the best traction.

    Engineers did a good job of adjusting the weight balance front-to-rear for the battery pack. In fact, the dynamics of the Highlander Hybrid are virtually indistinguishable from the conventional Highlander, on-road or off.

    The Highlander Hybrid comes standard with 17-inch alloy wheels and all-season tires. As with any car, drivers who live in the snow belt might want to consider purchasing a separate set of winter tires to improve cold-weather traction. A standard-sized spare tire is standard, as are four-channel antilock brakes, traction and yaw control.

    The Highlander Hybrid comes standard with a tow prep package, and carries a towing capacity of 3,500 pounds: enough for a small trailer.

    Like the Lexus RX 400h, the Highlander Hybrid is primarily a road car. It is not designed for extreme off-road driving. It does not have a two-speed transfer case, and therefore lacks the extreme low gears necessary for driving along rocky trails and over steep grades, nor is the undercarriage robust enough to protect drivetrain components against damage caused by errant tree roots and boulders.

    A  versatile interior with seating for seven

    Unlike the Lexus, the Toyota Highlander is available with cloth seats: a more practical alternative for drivers with active lifestyles. Both the second and third-row seats fold flat to create a generous load floor, easily large enough for a couple of bikes with the front wheels removed. Roof rails are standard on all models.

    The seats are well designed ergonomically with excellent lumbar support. Toyota does a good job of providing bins and cubbies for storage around the seating areas, as well as generous-sized cupholders for passengers in all three rows of seats.

    All seating positions get standard three-point safety harnesses. The base model comes with a standard AM/FM/CD sound system. Buyers can upgrade to a premium system with 6-CD disc changer and redundant steering wheel controls.

    While a DVD-based navigation system is standard on the Lexus RX 400h, it is not available on the Highlander Hybrid. Nor is the standard back-up camera that comes as part of that system.

    Advanced standard safety on all models.

    All Highlander Hybrid models come with standard antilock brakes, traction and yaw control, front, side and side curtain airbags.  A proprietary system called vehicle dynamics integrated management anticipates a loss of vehicle control in any direction and automatically corrects for it using the brakes. The idea behind the system is to allow the driver to push the performance limits of the vehicle without losing control.

    Other standard safety features include front, side and side curtain airbags to protect the first two rows of passengers. Child seat attachments are located in the second-row seats.

    Two trim levels

    The Highlander Hybrid front-wheel and four-wheel drive models are both available in the base version or an upscale Limited grade, that includes standard leather seats, automatic climate, four-way power front passenger seat and automatic dimming rearview mirror with compass. Base price for the Limited model with four-wheel drive is $39,290.

    Likes: This seven-seat sport-utility vehicle averages 30 miles-per-gallon on the city and highway: fuel economy comparable to a compact sedan. It is easy to drive, versatile and practical,  with a strong roster of standard safety features including side and side curtain airbags, antilock braking and traction control. The second and third-row seats fold flat to create a nice-sized cargo space and roof rails are standard on all models.

    Dislikes: Navigation and rear backup system are not available. Because the four-wheel drive system does not include a two-speed transfer case, the Highlander Hybrid is not suitable for serious off-road driving.

    Quick facts:

    Base price: $34,430
    Price as tested: $39,290
    Horsepower: 208 @ 5,600 r.p.m.
    Torque: 212 lbs.-ft. @ 4,400 r.p.m.
    0 to 60: 7.3 seconds
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: No  
    Towing: Yes
    Off-road: No
    Bicycle friendly: Yes
    Fuel economy: 31/27 m.p.g. city/highway 
    Comments: Pricing does not include a $565 destination and delivery charge.

     

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