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Toyota Highlander Hybrid: A natural for the Northwest lifestyle

After seven successful years, the Toyota Highlander was redesigned and re-engineered for the 2008 model year. The new version of the popular crossover SUV is bigger, roomier, and more powerful — but not at the expense of fuel economy. I’ve been a fan of the Highlander since the first time I drove it — but I like the hybrid even more.

The Highlander comes in three trim levels — base, Sport and Limited, and each offers front- or all-wheel drive powertrain configurations. The two Hybrids are base and Limited, and both are offered only with all-wheel drive.

Highlander is positioned in the center of Toyota’s midsize SUV lineup. It offers more stylishness than either the truck-based, 4Runner or retro FJ Cruiser. Both of those offer rugged suspensions and low-range transfer cases making them highly capable off road. The Highlander however, is a crossover — based on the Camry and Avalon sedan platform. Highlander’s all-wheel-drive systems are designed more for wet, slippery pavement and wintry conditions, than rock climbing or serious off-roading.

Walkaround: The Highlander is about the same size as the Honda Pilot. The design has evolved into a cleaner and more stylish, yet also more aggressive look than previous models. It’s pronounced wheel arches — especially when filled with the available 19-inch alloy wheels — accentuate the wider stance, giving it a more muscular appearance than the previous-generation.

Hybrid models are differentiated by blue-tinted lighting, a special grille, and its own unique alloy wheels.

Interior: As usual, fit and finish are excellent everywhere you look. The various controls are easy to find, and they move with Toyota/Lexus precision. All but the base model have a 3.5-inch screen that displays trip computer and climate control information, as well as the image from the rear backup camera.

The Highlander comes standard with cloth upholstery; three-row seating for up to seven passengers; a 40/20/40 second row seat with a removable center section that can be stowed under the first-row center console, and a fold-flat third row seat.

With 95.4 cubic feet of cargo space it’s roomier inside than all but a handful of competitors in this highly overcrowded market segment.

Also standard are A/C, AM/FM/CD with six speakers and MP3; power windows, locks, and mirrors; remote keyless entry; tilt/telescope steering wheel, cruise control; fog lights; variable intermittent wipers; rear defogger with its own variable intermittent wiper; rear spoiler; and two front and one cargo-area 12-volt power outlets.

There are 10-cup holders plus a bottle holder in each door, and plenty of storage for small items.

The Hybrid features Toyota’s Smart Entry System that includes keyless entry and starting, a 3.5-inch multifunction display screen including a rear backup camera, clock, tire-pressure display, A/C readout, and outside temperature and trip computer information, in addition to all the hybrid-related features. Also, base Hybrids come standard with two rows of seats — the third is optional.

Options include leather upholstery, navigation system, front dual-zone climate control, automatic rear air conditioning, heated front seats, upgraded, nine-speaker JBL audio, rear DVD entertainment, hands-free Bluetooth, sunroof, power rear tailgate, and a towing package giving the Highlander a 5,000-pound tow rating.

Hybrid models also feature some exclusive interior touches — such as the gauges being trimmed in blue instead of red, and a power meter replacing the tach. Displayed either on the multifunction or navigation screen are Consumption and Energy Monitor information.

Safety features on all models include dual front airbags, front side-impact airbags for thorax protection, side curtain airbags that cover all three seating rows, a driver’s knee airbag, active front headrests, tire-pressure monitor, antilock brakes, traction control, antiskid control, and hill-start assist.

Under The Hood: The Hybrid has the same, reliable 270-hp gas/electric power train as the 2005-08 models, that delivers smooth and plentiful power. The hybrid powertrain, which in my view is the best in the industry, is rated at 27/25 mpg City/Highway. Hill descent control is standard on all AWD models.

Behind The Wheel: I’ve driven both the hybrid and gas versions of the 2009 Highlander, and was impressed with both. Toyota has obviously chosen to focus more on ride than handling. The Highlander offers ride quality that is luxuriously smooth and very quiet — especially for a vehicle this physical size. The suspension smoothes out all but the most jolting bumps, although highway driving has a bit of cushiony feel until you get used to it.

Steering is light, but somewhat slow. Because of the extra weight of the batteries, there’s some noticeable body lean in cornering and braking, so I wouldn’t call it exactly nimble. But because of that extra weight, the Hybrid also delivers a firmer ride and slightly more road feel than the gas version. Standard traction control and electronic stability control all help as well.

I found the brakes a bit soft, but with great stopping power thanks to standard brake assist and electronic brake force distribution.

Whines: The navigation system — a spendy option — is almost necessary to see the backup camera image. But the display also absorbs some of the audio controls, adding an extra step or two when changing stations.

Bottom Line: The 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is a luxuriously riding, easy to enjoy, family-style vehicle. It offers excellent fuel economy, particularly in stop-and-go traffic, along with extremely low emissions. Add Toyota’s reputation for reliability and resale value, and the 2009 Highlander is a natural for the Northwest lifestyle.

Lary Coppola's picture
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