For 2007, the Toyota Highlander and Highlander Hybrid receive a safety upgrade: all models now have side and curtain airbags with roll-sensing capability as standard equipment on all models.

All Highlander models use a 3.3-litre V6 engine, but Hybrid models combine it with a version of the company’s Hybrid Synergy Drive, first used on the Toyota Prius, which raises horsepower from 208 to 215, and torque from 212 to 222, while reducing fuel consumption. The conventional Highlander uses a five-speed automatic transmission, while the Hybrid uses a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Both models are four-wheel drive; the Highlander is full-time 4WD, while the Hybrid uses an on-demand system. It runs in front-wheel most of the time, but when it senses slippage, it engages the rear wheels, which are powered by an electric motor.

Both models are available in five- or seven-passenger configuration; the Hybrid comes in base or Limited trim, the Highlander in 5-Passenger or 7-Passenger configuration.

Features on the five-passenger Hybrid, and both models of the conventional Highlander are similar, including CD player with six speakers, air conditioning, cloth seats, power locks with keyless entry, tilt wheel, cargo cover, cruise control, privacy glass, heated mirrors and fog lamps. The Highlander uses 16-inch alloy wheels, while the Hybrid comes with 17-inch wheels. Five-passenger models have a 60/40 split folding rear bench seat, while seven-passenger models have a 60/40 split folding second-row bench seat, and third-row bench seat with fold-down seatback.

The Hybrid Limited adds seven-passenger seating, JBL Audio CD/cassette stereo with wheel-mounted controls, automatic climate control with rear auxiliary heater, heated leather seats with ten-way driver and four-way passenger power adjusters, outside temperature gauge, auto-dimming rearview mirror, leather-wrapped wheel, garage door opener, anti-theft system, light control system, rear spoiler and power sunroof.

Both conventional Highlander models can be optioned with a Leather Package of heated leather seats, leather-wrapped wheel, ten-way adjustable driver’s seat and front headrest tilt adjustment, while the seven-passenger Highlander can be upgraded to the Limited package as is added to the Hybrid Limited.

The Highlander Hybrid is a “full hybrid”, meaning that it can operate in gasoline or electric modes, as well as a combination of both, as does the Toyota Prius. Its fuel economy is impressive for an SUV, but it commands a substantial premium over the conventional model, and will take a while to pay back at the fuel pumps, even with rising gas prices.

All models offer a pleasant ride with nimble handling, but the seven-passenger version is that in name only; the third row is cramped and suitable mostly for smaller children. Unless you’re hauling seven passengers on a regular basis, go for the much better cargo capacity of the two-row five-passenger versions.

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