THE RIDE: Four-door, up to seven-passenger 2008 Toyota Highlander midsize hybrid SUV.
DOWN THE ROAD: Launched in 2005, the hybrid version of the Highlander has been redesigned for 2008. This translates into a boost of 3 inches each in width and wheelbase, and 4 inches in length. Based on a unitized steel body, the Highlander is equipped with Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive, which offers a smooth and supple ride with plenty of power to take you to your destination.
TECH & PERFORMANCE: The 3.3-liter V-6 engine, coupled with an electric drive motor generator, puts out a respectable 270 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 212 pounds-feet of torque at 3600 rpm. It is mated to a receptive Continuous Variable Transmission, which shifts with ease. The gas/electric SUV is equipped with three motor generators, which charge the nickel-metal hydride battery. During braking or deceleration, the battery is recharged. A MacPherson strut and coil springs in the front and a dual-linked strut with coil springs in the rear make up the Highlander's unyielding suspension. An electronic power-steering system enables the SUV to stay the course. Braking is handled by 12.9-inch ventilated disc brakes in the front and a 12.2-inch solid rear disc. Tow capacity? A modest 3,500 pounds.
LOOK & FEEL: With its chrome-surround grille and silver-painted fins, blue-tinted headlight lens, silver-painted rear license plate garnish and six-spoke, 17-inch aluminum-alloy wheels, the Highlander hybrid stands apart from its regular sibling. The cabin is adorned with wood on the center console, shifter knob and door grips, conveying a well-appointed aura. A rear backup camera displays images on a 3.5-inch LCD screen for the driver when backing up. If you have children in the rear, the conversation mirror will offer you a full view of the second- and third-row seats. The center stow and console can hold plenty. The instrument panel displays optitron gauges with blue graphics and a power meter with a hybrid system indicator, giving you an inkling of fuel usage. At the touch of a button on the center console, you can switch to full electric mode. Press another button and the hybrid keeps the throttle in check, leading to further gasoline savings.
SAFETY FIRST: Dual front and side airbags, side curtain for all rows, driver knee airbag, stability and traction control, four-wheel antilock brakes, Electronic Brake Distribution with brake assist, driver- and front-passenger active headrests and three-point seatbelts for all are standard.
OUT THE DOOR: $33,700, plus tax, tag, delivery and destination charges.
BY THE NUMBERS: Tires, 245/65R17; wheelbase, 109.8 inches; length, 188.4 inches; weight, 4,508 pounds; fuel capacity, 17.2 gallons; highway, 25 mpg; city, 27 mpg.
WHY DIG IT: If gasoline prices continue to hover around $3 a gallon, expect hybrids such as the Highlander to be in huge demand. This SUV from Toyota not only offers dependable and safe transportation but also can eke out a praiseworthy performance while sipping fuel.