Given that scenario, more people are considering hybrid vehicles, and companies such as Toyota are making it easier by expanding the list of available gas/electric models during the next several years. In fact, Toyota boldly predicts that 25 percent of its sales will be hybrid-powered vehicles by the year 2010. What a perfect scenario – super efficient cars and suvs for sale just when we really need to focus on our oil consumption.
The Toyota Prius, with real-world results of about 45 mpg and its Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (SULEV) rating, is doing its best to polish the Hybrid badge. On the other end of the spectrum is the new 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, which shares the Prius’ SULEV rating but, with our staff driving, yielded only 19.8 mpg.
Apparently, we lost something in the translation. Yes, the Highlander Hybrid bears a SULEV rating, but a hybrid that gets less than 20 mpg?
On the plus side, the 2006 Highlander Hybrid is like nearly all Toyotas we’ve tested, meaning it impresses overall in terms of quality and attention to detail. And the SULEV rating equates to fewer pollutants spewed from this SUV’s tailpipe – no one will complain about that. Finally, unlike gas/electric versions of the Honda Civic and Ford Escape, this hybrid offers a punch of added performance compared to its gas counterpart.
But, unlike those other models, this Toyota fails to make economic sense. The fuel mileage was unimpressive, and was actually much lower than the Ford Escape Hybrid we tested, which runs about $10-15,000 less. Consider also that the gas-powered Highlander saves you about $7,000, which will pay for plenty of fuel, though you’ll get fewer standard features. Also, the regular model already offers sufficient power from its V6, which is rated to get as much as 24 mpg on the highway, and some drivers could see better fuel economy with the gas version rather than the hybrid powertrain – depending on how they’re driven.
Given these points, we’re not sure there’s a market for a livelier, more complex, more expensive, more “green” SUV that offers less fuel economy…especially when gas hovers around $3.00 per gallon. Most buyers interested in the Highlander are better off with the non-hybrid model, and can maximize their fuel mileage by maintaining proper tire pressures, driving at reasonable speeds, and carrying extra weight only when necessary. And for buyers who are intent on purchasing an SUV that offers real fuel savings, stop by your Ford dealer for a look at the Escape Hybrid.
Billed as the first seven-passenger gas/electric sport utility vehicle, the 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is available in base and Limited trims, each featuring either front- or four-wheel drive.
Starting at $33,595, including a $565 destination charge, the base front-wheel-drive model includes an eight-way power driver’s seat; a third-row folding seat; heated mirrors; a trip computer; a roof rack; rear privacy glass; and the usual array of power options and amenities, like power door locks and air conditioning. Four-wheel-drive base models start at $34,995. An optional “Package 1” adds fog lights, a rear spoiler, steering wheel audio controls, a JBL sound system with a cassette player and six-disc CD changer, and a power moonroof.
Shoppers looking for a bit more luxury can move up to the front-wheel-drive Limited model for $38,455. Standard are all of the contents of the base model’s Package 1, as well as heated front seats; leather on the seats, shift knob, and steering wheel; burled woodgrain interior trim; automatic climate control; a four-way power front passenger seat; an anti-theft alarm; an electrochromic interior rearview mirror with a compass; and automatic headlights. Four-wheel-drive Limited models start at $39,855. The only factory option is a navigation system with a hybrid energy monitor and a touch screen.
Our test vehicle was a four-wheel-drive Limited model with the optional navigation system, a port/dealer-installed tow hitch receiver, and a port/dealer-installed Preferred Accessory Package, which included a set of carpeted floor mats, a cargo net, a first aid kit, and a glass breakage sensor. The final tally came to $42,711, including the $565 destination charge.
For comparison, consider that the non-hybrid, front-wheel-drive 2006 Toyota Highlander with the third row seat (most comparable to the base Hybrid model) starts at $27,005 (including a $565 destination charge). The top-o’-the-line four-wheel-drive Limited model goes for $32,145. That’s a $6,590 premium for the base Hybrid and a $7,430 premium for the macked-out Limited Hybrid. However, those numbers are a bit deceiving, since the Hybrid adds more standard features, like an anti-theft system, an in-glass radio antenna, daytime running lights, an exterior temperature gauge, a trip computer, electroluminescent instrumentation, a universal garage door opener, side and side curtain airbags, a power driver’s seat, a front passenger folding seat, and alloy wheels.
Nuts and Bolts
At the heart of the 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, offered as either a front-wheel-drive or 4WD-i (four-wheel drive with intelligence), a 3.3-liter V6 engine that’s nearly identical to the one found in the non-hybrid model includes dual overhead cams, 24 valves, VVT-i (Variable Valve Timing with intelligence), and all-aluminum construction. However, in gas/electric guise, this powerplant is connected to a continuously variable automatic transmission and almost all of the engine components are electrically powered rather than belt driven.
All models supplement the V6’s power with one electric drive motor, while four-wheel-drive models add a 50-kilowatt rear motor that offers up to 96 lb.-ft. of torque. These motors are the same as found in the Toyota Prius, but are twice as fast and twice as powerful for application in the Highlander Hybrid. The gas engine puts out 208 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 212 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,400 rpm; the front electric motor provides 167 horsepower at 4,500 and 247 lb.-ft. of torque at 0 rpm; the rear motor in four-wheel-drive models offers 68 horsepower at 4,610 rpm and 96 lb.-ft. of torque at 0 rpm. Total net horsepower is 268; an accurate net torque rating cannot be calculated since the gas and electric motors are never working together simultaneously. The EPA rates the 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid a Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (SULEV), and suggests that front-wheel-drive units will achieve 33 mpg in the city, 28 mpg on the highway, and 30 mpg combined; four-wheel-drive models are estimated at 31 mpg, 27 mpg, and 29 mpg, respectively.
Like the Prius and the Ford Escape Hybrid, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid is designated a full hybrid, meaning that it is capable of running entirely on electric power under certain conditions. This is due, in part, to a regenerative braking system that captures otherwise wasted energy to recharge a 45-kilowatt/288-volt nickel metal hydride battery located under the second-row seat. Engineers have dubbed it the Electronically Controlled Braking (ECB) system, designed to provide ideal braking through the perfect blend of regenerative braking and hydraulic pressure. ECB ultimately works with 320-mm vented front discs and 287-mm solid rear disc brakes.
The same approach was taken with the Electronic Power Steering (EPS) system, with its focus on quicker and tighter response. This rack-and-pinion setup is connected to a fully independent MacPherson strut suspension with front and rear stabilizer bars, and it all meets the pavement via 17-inch alloy wheels wearing Goodyear Integrity P225/65R17 all-season tires.
When hybrids first hit the market, they were accompanied by promises of superb fuel economy and lower emissions. However, it soon became apparent that with these anti-OPEC rides came some sacrifices, like power, utility, ride comfort, and other considerations. Then came models like the redesigned Toyota Prius, Honda Civic Hybrid, and the Ford Escape Hybrid, all offering more in the areas of comfort and utility, though, in some cases, less fuel economy. The most recent arrival was the Honda Accord Hybrid, with its 255-horsepower gas/electric powertrain offering gobs of giddy-up topped off with a shot of improved mpg. If the Accord used a pencil to draw the line between true fuel-sipping hybrids, like the Prius, and performance-oriented hybrid wannabes, the 268-horsepower 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid does so with a big, black, permanent marker.
According to EPA estimates, our four-wheel-drive Highlander Hybrid should’ve gotten as much as 31 mpg in the city and 29 mpg in mixed driving. That’s compared with EPA ratings of 18 mpg in the city and 21 mpg in mixed driving for the non-hybrid Highlander V6. So, we were surprised by our tester’s pathetic mixed rating of only 19.8 mpg. No, we didn’t hammer on the throttle or drain a whole tank pushing 100 mph on the freeway. What we did was drive it like we would any other car – keeping up with traffic (when it was actually moving) on the expressway and moving at a moderate pace in town. Based on unrealistic EPA figures, lots of people look forward to getting more than 500 miles per tank in hybridized Highlanders. We rolled into the gas station with the odometer reading 284 miles, and that was about 20 miles after the low-fuel warning light first came on. As it turns out, there were still about three gallons in our 17.2-gallon tank – not enough to get to the 400-mile mark, let alone 500.
Better mileage can be had by driving the 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid like there’s an eggshell behind the accelerator. Provided you don’t mind infuriating any drivers on your rear bumper, you can crawl away from stoplights at a turtle’s pace and run solely on electric power to maximize fuel economy. On a slight downhill (with no one behind to annoy), we got up to 25 mph before the gas engine kicked in. Drive normally, however, and the petrol starts burning a lot sooner. So much for enjoying 268 horsepower and over 30 mpg. Toyota claims four-wheel-drive models will reach 60 mph in 7.3 seconds. That’s impressive, but would be even more so if done efficiently, which, based on our experience, it’s not. And lest you serious off-roaders start envisioning running battery packs over the Rubicon Trail, realize that this four-wheel-drive hybrid is designed more for foul-weather traction than mud-slinging and rock-crawlin’. We put in a few miles playing on Pismo Beach, but the fun ended when the front tires got a little buried in the sand (and by a little, we mean very little). With the electric motor lacking the grunt to get things going and no low gear to lock into, we ended up planting the throttle until the engine kicked in and the tires starting spinning. After a minute or so, both the Highlander Hybrid and our passengers were back on hard-packed sand, and stayed there for the rest of the day.
The Highlander Hybrid does have its strengths. First is that SULEV emissions rating, which means the Highlander Hybrid burns cleaner and spews out fewer pollutants than the regular Highlander, and also most other SUVs. So, while this hybrid consumes more fossil fuels than expected, it does prove to be eco-friendly in terms of air quality.
Visibility is good, too, thanks to large rearview mirrors and an expansive greenhouse, while interior noise levels are generally low, with the exception of some wind noise at speed and too much buffeting when either of the front windows is open. The continuously variable automatic transmission offers quicker response than those in other vehicles, making this hybrid feel downright powerful off the line. Also, regenerative braking, often felt as a slight pulsing sensation in other hybrids, is almost undetectable while driving. Overall, the Highland Hybrid provides a smooth, refined powertrain, even under full throttle.
That’s it for the good news. Those new electric braking and steering systems, designed to offer better feel and response, mostly failed in both respects. The brakes, while extremely effective, featured a sensitive pedal that went straight to full braking with very little pressure, turning modulation into a fine art. And that more responsive steering? It felt numb under all driving conditions, and had a significant dead spot on center. Finally, draining any remaining fun from the driving experience was the Highlander Hybrid’s affinity for body roll and the tires’ total lack of grip.
As with any vehicle that is designed to carry multiple passengers, the 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid needs to be comfortable, and for the most part, it is. The front bucket seats are fairly wide, and the cushioning is firm but supportive. The power adjustments on the driver’s seat work with the tilt steering wheel to provide a suitable driving position, though one of our editors did suffer a sore lower back after a 500-mile stint behind the wheel. The heated seats on our Limited tester worked quickly, and all models feature a headliner contoured for added headroom in all three rows. Each front seat includes a fold-down, padded center armrest, though we wish they were wider and could be adjusted for a more customized fit. Thanks to doors that open wide and a good hip point, most folks should have no problem getting in and out of the Highlander Hybrid.
Second-row passengers sit on a 60/40 folding bench seat that is spacious, comfortable, and equally easy to enter and exit as the front. Padding is added to the front seatbacks to protect occupants’ knees, headrests offer a generous range of vertical adjustment, and padded door and fold-down center armrests are well placed. The second-row seat, which feels a bit softer than the front buckets, folds nearly flat, and slides forward to provide access to and improve passenger room for the third-row bench.
All 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid models come standard with that third bench, which folds flat into the cargo floor using a simple strap, and can be raised just as easily using a small recessed handle on the seatback. But be mindful that the third-row is only suitable for young children. To gain access, the passenger’s side of the second-row bench slides forward and there’s a small outboard “step” inside the doorframe that helps with stumbling into the rearmost bench. However, this requires some serious crouching, and even larger children might find it difficult. Once seated, third-row passengers will be hard pressed to find any leg or foot room, though that problem can be alleviated somewhat by sliding the second-row bench forward. Yes, there’s a seat back there, but just make sure it’s never where your adult butt gets planted.
Drivers of the 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid will enjoy straightforward, logical instrumentation, unless they get a Limited model with the optional navigation system. In Highlanders sans navigation, the center dash features a stereo with simple knobs for power/volume, seek, scan, and tuning. The heating and air conditioning controls are equally simple, with rotary dials for temperature and fan speed, and clearly marked buttons for front and rear defrosters. Airflow settings are accessed via a “mode” button, which is fine, but we prefer dedicated buttons for pointing heat to our feet or a crisp breeze to our faces.
Some of the simplicity goes the way of the Dodo bird when the navigation system is added. With it comes a touch screen in the center dash that includes some radio and climate controls built in. Gone are the radio preset buttons and the temperature and fan speed dials. Should drivers choose not to use the steering wheel radio controls for volume, station select, and mode, they’ll need to tap an “Audio” button to the right of the center screen, and then search for the station of their choice.
The climate controls become even more cumbersome with the navigation system installed. An up/down button replaces the temperature dial, with the temperature setting displayed on the screen. However, since even the slightest bit of sunlight turns that screen into an indecipherable, washed-out mess, the interior temperature setting is often a mystery. It’s an annoying design that is no less irksome when a hybrid badge is attached. Furthermore, air flow and fan speed controls are buried within the navigation screen. Minus the integrated radio and climate functions, the navigation system is easy to use and works well.
Secondary controls, such as the power mirror switches, are where you’d expect. On the left dash is a button that turns on dedicated rear seat heater controls and the heated front seats on our Limited tester were activated with buttons located forward of the dash-mounted shifter. The driver’s window features one-touch automatic up and down, something not shared by any other windows or the power sunroof.
Utility comes in the form of ten cupholders and numerous cubbies. Adjustable cupholders are located between the front seats and in the second-row fold-down center armrest. Non-adjustable cupholders are built into the rear doors and third-row side panels. Storage includes a large glovebox, ashtrays in the front and rear of the center console, generous front and rear door storage pockets, an overhead sunglasses holder, and dual front seatback pockets. There’s also a recessed tray below the console with a dedicated power outlet, and a small compartment at the rear of the console.
Cargo capacity measures 10.5 cubic feet behind the third-row seat. That figure climbs to 80.6 cubic feet when the second- and third-row seats are folded. The liftover height is a bit high (upper thigh for our 5-foot-8-inch editor), but the cargo area includes tie down hooks, a power outlet and light, and our tester added a handy net that attached just inside of the tailgate. A full-size spare tire is stored outside under the cargo floor.
It takes a keen eye to recognize the subtle differences that separate the Hybrid from the rest of the Highlander lineup. Most of the uniqueness lies at the tail end, with 4WD-i and Hybrid Synergy Drive tailgate badges, a piece of chrome trim above the license plate frame, and brighter LED taillights. Other exterior tweaks include unique 17-inch alloy wheels, chrome grille accents, and an extra air inlet in the front bumper. The Highlander is an SUV that is visually bland, offering neither cutting-edge styling nor unusual dimensions. It is literally the Toyota Camry of the sport-ute world, and the addition of the hybrid powertrain does little to change that. It is a far stretch from Toyota’s other hybrid, the Prius, which features more contemporary, and potentially polarizing, styling.
Like the exterior, interior design is nearly identical to that of the regular model. Our 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited wore attractive tan leather, complemented by tan and brown dash and door panels with matching grain patterns. Chrome accents were added to the door handles, the shifter, and the Toyota emblem on the steering wheel. Additional touches included a silver instrument panel, alloy sill plates on each doorframe, and woodgrain trim that looked too cheap for our tastes. Chintzy walnut aside, the interior’s material quality was typical Toyota, with soft leather on the seats, shift knob, and steering wheel; padded door sills; and matte-finished, hard plastics reserved for the center console, lower doors, and dash. We noticed a few rough edges on the corners of the dash, and a few dash panels that didn’t sit totally flush. The headliner was hard with a thin layer of fuzz. All interior parts were affixed securely, and we were unable to elicit any squeaks or rattles, even when bouncing about off road.
Equal to the emphasis on the 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid’s powertrain technology is the attention paid to safety. Inside, each passenger, even in the third-row seat, is granted a three-point seatbelt. Six airbags are provided, including two frontal, two front side, and two side curtains that protect front- and second-row occupants.
Outside and below the skin are antilock brakes with electronic brake assistance and electronic brake-force distribution. Stability and traction control systems are standard, and are integral to the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system. The Highlander Hybrid is the first Toyota equipped with VDIM, which uses a microprocessor to manage stability control, traction control, and all brake systems in an effort to help the driver maintain control when traction is compromised in a turn.
Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has crash-tested the 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. However, the non-hybrid model received a good frontal rating from IIHS (the best possible) and five out of five stars from NHTSA for front and side impacts, with a rollover rating of four stars.
Test Vehicle: 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited 4WD
Price as Tested: $42,711 (includes a $565 destination charge)
Engine Size and Type: Hybrid Synergy Drive 3.3-liter V6 with VVT-i
Horsepower (gas/front electric motor/rear electric motor/net): 208 at 5,600 rpm; 167 at 4,500; 68 at 4,610 rpm; 268
Torque (gas/front electric motor/rear electric motor/net): 212 at 4,400 rpm; 247 at 0 rpm; 96 at 0 rpm; since the three components are never working together at the same time, an accurate net torque rating cannot be calculated
Transmission: Continuously variable automatic
Curb Weight: 4,245 lbs.
EPA Fuel Economy (city/highway): 31/27 mpg
Observed Fuel Economy: 19.8 mpg
Length: 185.4 inches
Width: 71.9 inches
Wheelbase: 106.9 inches
Height: 68.7 inches
Legroom (front/second row/third row): 42.9/34.6/30.2 inches
Headroom (front/second row/third row): 38.6/37.8/36.3 inches
Max. Seating Capacity: 7
Max. Cargo Volume: 80.6 cubic feet
Max. Payload: 1,430 lbs.
Max. Towing Capacity: 3,500 lbs.
Ground Clearance: 7.3 inches
Competitors: Ford Escape Hybrid, Jeep Liberty Diesel, Lexus RX 400h, Mercury Mariner Hybrid
Does the Highland Hybrid carry the same powertrain warranty as the regular Highlander? Yes. Both models carry a five-year, 60,000-mile powertrain warranty. The basic warranty covers three years or 36,000 miles, and the corrosion protection covers five years and unlimited mileage. All hybrid-specific parts, including the batteries and control modules, are covered for eight years or 100,000 miles.
How does the Ford Escape Hybrid compare in terms of EPA and real-world fuel ratings? The EPA estimates the Escape Hybrid will achieve 33 mpg in the city, 29 mpg on the highway, and 31 mpg in mixed driving. The Highlander Hybrid is estimated to get 31/27/29 mpg, respectively. In real world driving, we got 25 mpg from the Escape Hybrid and 19.8 mpg from the Highlander Hybrid.
How much more expensive is a base Highlander Hybrid versus a regular Highlander? The base 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid requires a $6,590 premium, but comes with more standard equipment including daytime running lights, a trip computer, an exterior temperature gauge, alloy wheels, side and side curtain airbags, and a power driver’s seat.
2nd Opinion - Wardlaw
There is one extremely thin reason to buy the 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid: It has a third-row seat, and that third-row seat is virtually uninhabitable by adults, making the company’s seven-passenger claim dubious, indeed. If you want a roomy hybrid vehicle and can live without two extra jump seats about which even children will gripe, I highly recommend considering a Ford Escape Hybrid, a Honda Accord Hybrid, a Mercury Mariner Hybrid, or a Toyota Prius, and here’s why.
Wrapping my head around the $42,700 sticker price on our loaded 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited is almost impossible for me, especially since I can’t help but deduce that, were I in the market for a leather-lined hybrid vehicle, I’d essentially be paying $10,000 for two kiddie seats and a limited-use 4WD system compared to the equally luxurious and equally speedy Honda Accord Hybrid. And, when compared to base prices with the Ford Escape Hybrid, Toyota wants a $5,300 premium for the extra row of seating, nicer interior materials, and worse fuel economy. Given the competition, the Highlander Hybrid makes zero sense to me.
But then I consider the seven-passenger, 2006 Ford Explorer Limited that I drove a couple of weeks ago, which had a 292-horsepower V8 engine and carried a sticker price of $45,000 and change. That SUV got 13.9 mpg and didn’t feel particularly quick, though it’s rated to tow 7,300 pounds, more than double the Highlander Hybrid’s 3,500-pound rating. I achieved 25.9 mpg in stop-and-go rush-hour traffic, driving the Highlander like the proverbial little old lady from Pasadena, and nailed a 23.8 rating driving normally. Plus, the Highlander Hybrid is surprisingly spry when you put your foot into it, feeling just like a big V8 without the familiar burble. Suddenly, almost 43 grand for the Toyota doesn’t seem so bad.
Trouble is, I got 5 mpg better fuel economy under the same driving conditions in the less expensive Ford Escape Hybrid, and isn’t one point of hybrid ownership to conserve fuel? Plus, I find the Ford to be more comfortable and more attractive, though the quality of the interior materials can’t hold a candle to the Highlander. And though the Toyota goes down the highway with a more refined demeanor, the difference isn’t worth as many as 100 C-notes.
Still wondering which one I’d spend my own money on? Any but the Highlander. – Christian J. Wardlaw
Photos courtesy of Ron Perry and Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A.