Toyota Highlander Preview – Chicago Auto Show: While executives and board members at other companies have been twiddling their thumbs, straddling the fence on whether or not to build a hybrid model, Toyota is busy unveiling the second generation of one its three hybrid vehicles, the 2008 Highlander Hybrid. It joins the Prius, also in its second generation, and the Camry Hybrid. Due to arrive in September, the new Highlander Hybrid promises 270 horsepower from an advanced Hybrid Synergy Drive system, up to 31 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway, standard four-wheel drive with intelligence, and a choice of Base or Limited designations.
Toyota claims that since its debut, the Highlander Hybrid has been a good seller, attracting more than 31,000 buyers in 2006 and helping the brand capture 67 percent of the U.S. hybrid market. That’s great, but Toyota’s own data suggest that the next Highlander needs to be larger and more powerful. Hence, gas and hybrid versions will be larger and will boast 270 horsepower. This is especially significant since it not only puts a fresh, more competitive crossover in Toyota’s fleet, but it also marks the introduction of one of the market’s largest mainstream hybrid models. With its enlarged dimensions and impressive power ratings, the 2008 Highlander Hybrid rises above competitors such as the Ford Escape Hybrid.
The 2008 Highlander Hybrid draws power from an advanced version of Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system, the same technology used in the Prius and Camry Hybrid. In this application, the system incorporates a 3.3-liter V6 engine with the electric motor and battery pack for a combined horsepower rating of 270 (torque figures are not available). An electronic continuously-variable automatic transmission directs power to all four 19-inch wheels in cooperation with an intelligent four-wheel-drive system (4WD-i). In comparison, the 2007 Highlander Hybrid offered 268 horsepower and was available in both front- and four-wheel-drive versions.
Well, one thing’s obvious – the 2008 Toyota Highlander has grown. In fact, the redesign resulted in an extra three inches in the wheelbase, a one-inch higher ground clearance, four inches of added body length, and three inches of newly-developed width. On the scales, all that extra Highlander equals another 500 pounds of curb weight, though it also translates into more than 12 cubic feet of added interior volume. Outside, sculpted wheel flares, a new front fascia, and 19-inch alloy wheels lend the new Highlander a more pronounced and aggressive appearance. Likewise, the tail has been reworked with restyled, wedged lamps and a redesigned fascia with integrated lower lenses. The interior is accented by pronounced gauges, soft shapes, and large control dials.
Inside the 2008 Toyota Highlander’s all-new and larger interior are features buyers are sure to appreciate. Among them are seven standard airbags, including side-curtains spanning all three rows and a driver’s knee airbag; a rear-view camera that can be ordered separate from the navigation system; and a keyless entry and ignition system. Other interesting items include a rear DVD system with a nine-inch monitor, and a Bluetooth-capable JBL audio system. Another neat feature is the second row Center Stow seat – when used, it connects two bucket seats to create one bench, but when not used it can be packed under the front center console, allowing for a storage spot or walk-through area to the third row.
According to Don Esmond, Toyota’s senior vice president of automotive operations, “Highlander holds a unique distinction within the Toyota brand and within the industry. Along with the 4Runner and FJ Cruiser, it anchors one of the industry’s only three-vehicle, midsize SUV lineups. Equally important, along with Prius and Camry Hybrid, it is a key component of the industry’s only three-vehicle hybrid strategy.” Esmond goes on to say, “The 2008 Highlander takes the car-based SUV concept to a new level. I say that with conviction, because it’s a category we invented. As you can see, the new Highlander has raised the bar significantly.”
You’re tired of hearing it, and we’re tired of writing it, but the fact remains – fluctuating and generally higher gas prices are affecting what we all consider when it comes trade-in time. It’s at that point when we face a dilemma – sacrifice space and performance for economy or take a significant hit whenever the fuel gauge reads empty. However, Toyota seeks to fill that void with the 2008 Highlander Hybrid, a sizeable crossover with added visual appeal, an interior chock-full of desirable features, and a 270-horsepower gas/electric powertrain under its skin. That should satisfy countless prospective buyers, but we’ll wait for pricing and more realistic 2008 EPA fuel economy figures before jumping for joy.