For 2006, the Highlander bulks up: the 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine is gone, and all models use a 3.3-litre V6 that is enhanced with three electric motors in the Highlander Hybrid. All models are now all-wheel-drive; the front-wheel-drive version available in 2005 is discontinued. Both models now have five- or seven-passenger seating; in addition, the conventional Highlander receives 16-inch alloy wheels with a full-size spare, wheel locks and fog lamps, while the Hybrid receives 17-inch wheels, chrome accented front grille, new front bumper, rear LED taillights and chrome license plate trim.

With the Hybrid joining the Prius in the line-up, Toyota says it is now the first automotive manufacturer to offer a full gasoline/electric hybrid in both the intermediate SUV and mid-size passenger car segments. The Highlander Hybrid is powered by a new version of Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive powertrain, specially-tweaked for a midsize SUV. It features an electronically-controlled continuously variable transmission (CVT) and on-demand electronic four-wheel-drive. The gasoline engine works seamlessly with a high-torque electric drive motor-generator that develops a peak system output equivalent to 268 hp, but with half the fuel consumption of a conventionally-powered vehicle.

The Highlander is a “full hybrid”, meaning that it can operate in gasoline or electric modes, as well as a combination of both. Under normal conditions, the Hybrid operates in front-wheel-drive mode, and automatically switches to 4WD when extra traction is needed. The Synergy Drive powertrain powers the front wheels, while an electric motor drives the rear ones.

Features on the gasoline-only Highlander include CD/cassette player with six speakers, air conditioning, cloth seats, 60/40 split rear bench, power locks with keyless entry, power windows, floor mats, cargo cover, cruise control, 16-inch alloy wheels, privacy glass, heated mirrors, variable intermittent wipers, and fog lamps. The seven-passenger model adds a third-row bench seat with fold-down seatback. Available options are a Leather Package, and a Limited Package that adds a long list of features, including leather interior, 17-inch wheels, side and curtain airbags and power sunroof.

The five-passenger Hybrid adds multi-information display, LED taillamps and 17-inch wheels.

The seven-passenger Hybrid comes only in Limited trim, and adds upgraded CD/cassette with eight speakers and wheel-mounted controls, automatic climate control, auxiliary rear heater, heated leather seats, outside temperature gauge, leather-wrapped wheel, integrated garage door opener, side and curtain airbags, anti-theft system, power sunroof and light control system.

All models offer a pleasant ride, but the seven-passenger version is that in name only; the third row of seats is cramped and suitable mostly for smaller children. Unless you’re hauling seven passengers on a regular basis, the five-passenger offers more cargo space without folding down another row of seats.

The Hybrid is up-to-the-minute technology, with a horsepower boost and better fuel economy than its gasoline-only twin, but a $6,350 premium in base form and $6,415 in Limited trim will take a while to pay back at the gas pumps, even with rising fuel prices; buy this one to save the planet, not necessarily your wallet.

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