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2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid: Going the extra mile(s) in comfort

Research needed to decide if hybrid version of midsize crossover is right choice
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Despite its big, rugged SUV looks, the 2011 Toyota Highland Hybrid is actually a well-mannered crossover that gets an EPA estimated 28 miles per gallon.

The 2011 Toyota Highlander is a master of disguise - especially the hybrid version.

At first glace, the Highlander looks like a traditional large Sport Utility Vehicle. It is fairly boxy, especially compared to the angular styling favored by Acura, Hyundai and Kia these days. Although classified as a midsize, the Highland is long enough to accommodate a third row of seats. It also sits high enough off the ground to encourage off road use. In fact, the conventional gasoline version can be ordered with four-wheel-drive, while the hybrid version is only available with all-wheel-drive.

But despite its rugged appearance, the Highlander is not built on a truck chasis. It is a Crossover Utility Vehicle, meaning it is more like a car. The result is a surprisingly smooth ride for such a large vehicle, even when traveling over the kind of broken pavement that would upset a truck's stiffer suspension.

The hybrid version also gets far better mileage than a traditional large SUV - or even most small CUVs. The EPA rates the Highlander Hybrid at an average 28 miles per gallon. That's better than every other Toyota available with all-wheel-drive four-wheel-drive systems, including the four-cylinder version of the compact RAV4 AWD, which is rated at 24 miles per gallon.

The Highlander Hybrid achieves its higher mileage like other hybrids - but switching power between a conventional gasoline engine and an electric motor. At slower speeds, all or most of the power is proved by the electric motor. When accelerating, an efficient 3.5-liter V6 provides all or most of the power. The power moves so smoothly between them that most drivers and passengers will never notice it. We only occasionally felt a slight vibration when the 231-horsepower V6 kicked in.

Unlike other hybrids, the Highlander Hybrid uses two electric motors - a 67-horsepower one in the front and a 68-horsepower one in the rear. When they are all working, the combined output is a respectable 280 horsepower, more than enough for quick starts, steep hills and freeway passing.

But here's where the Highland Hybrid differs from other AWD and 4WD vehicles. There is no drive shaft from the gasoline engine to the rear differential. The rear wheels are only driven by the second electric motor. This means the Highlander Hybrid is not as off road capable as a traditional SUV or most AWD-equipped CUVs. Nor will be as good as them in deep mud and thick snow.

That probably will not matter to most Highlander Hybrid buyers. Most CUV and SUV owners do not take their vehicles off road or through heavy mud and snow, even when they are equipped with conventional all-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive. The additional traction provided by the rear electric motor is likely to be as much as the majority of owners will ever need.

At the same time, like all hybrids, the Highlander Hybrid is priced higher than equivalent gasoline-powered vehicles. For example, according to Toyota's website, the least expensive Highlander Hybrid costs over $7,000 more than the cheapest gasoline-powered Highlander, which is EPA rated at 19 miles per gallon. That's a lot of money for an increase of just nine miles per gallon, although the difference will become more significant over time if gasoline prices continue rising - or even just stabilize somewhere above the $4 a gallon mark.

The savings may be even greater for many drivers, however. The EPA rates the Highlander Hybrid at 28 miles per gallon in the city and 28 miles per gallon on the highway. Conventional gasoline-powered vehicle do worse in city driving, so drivers who do most of their traveling in urban traffic will do even better with the Highlander Hybrid than equivalent gasoline-powered competitors.

Hybrid or not, all Highlanders have a lot going for them. Although the third row of seats are cramped, the first two rows offer plenty of room for five adults. The interior is cleanly designed with multiple cup holders, compartments and bins. Controls are simple and logically laid out, making it easy to adjust the climate settings even at night.

Even the least expensive Highlander includes an impressive list of safety and convenience features, such as stability control, traction control, anti-lock braking, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist and Smart Stop Technology, which is designed to automatically reduce engine power when both the brake and accelerator pedals are pressed at the same time, helping the vehicle stop. Front and side air bags are also standard, along with front and rear air conditioning, and auxiliary audio and power jacks.

The hybrid versions include more standard equipment - which helps account for part of the price difference. Our test vehicle also came with such options as the leather package that includes leather and heated front seats, a leather-trimmed steering wheel with integrated audio controls, Bluetooth connectivity and a moonroof. The result helped ease the strain of day-to-day commuting and made even long excursions a pleasure.

Like all hybrids, our test vehicle has its quirks. There was no engine sound or vibration when it was first turned on, just a beep to signal it was ready to go. Sometimes the engine shuddered to life while it was still in Park, other times it did not come on until the transmission was shifted into gear.

And like other Toyota hybrids, the drive system can be put into different modes. Pushing an Economy button on the center console increases mileage but reduces performance. Pushing an adjacent EV button allows the Highlander Hybrid to be driven up to a mile on electric power alone, but it's hardly seems worth the effort.

In the normal mode the Highlander Hybrid drives like a conventional vehicle. In fact, when the electric motors are factored in, it has 10 horsepower more than the gasoline-only version of the 3.5-liter Highlander. In the hybrid version, the power flows through a Continuously Variable Transmission, compared to the five- and six-speed automatic version available in the gasoline-only version. When you add and subtract everything, it should be fair to say the hybrid version drives pretty much like the gasoline-only 4WD version - a marked improvement over the earliest hybrids, which tended to be slow and unresponsive.

Potential buyers need to figure out if the better mileage is worth the additional cost, and whether they need a more traditional 4WD system than the one in the Highlander Hybrid. Toyota is clearly figuring the hybrid version will make sense for a lot of families - something that may well become even more apparent if gasoline price increase don't slow down soon.

• Model: 2011 Highlander Hybrid.

• Manufacturer: Toyota.

• Class: Midsize Crossover Utility Vehicle.

• Layout: Front engine, all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five door, seven-passenger CUV.

• Powertrain: 3.5-liter V6 (231 hp) combined with 67 front electric motor (67 hp) and rear electric motors (68 hp) for combined 280 hp.

• Transmissions: Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT).

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 28/28.

• Price: Beginning at approximately $37,290 ($42,429 as tested).