By Grant Yoxon

2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Photo: Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

The only thing worse than sitting in rush hour traffic after a hard day’s work is passing time by watching the trip computer. Boring, yes, but also distressing. The moment you enter the freeway and slow to a stop, the litres per 100 kilometres indicator starts rising.

It might was well be a cash register. With each tenth of a litre added, the cost of the daily commute goes up, and up, and up. And the hours spent earning the money to pay the cost of getting to work go up, and up, and up.

Frustrating.

But that’s just the personal cost. The environmental cost increases significantly too. The more fuel your vehicle consumes per mile crawled, the greater the environmental impact will be.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Highway 417, which dissects Ottawa from East to West, is fairly typical of urban freeways anywhere in Canada. Twenty hours a day, the 417 – or Queensway as it is known here – moves traffic quickly and efficiently across the city. But at rush hour, morning and evening, things get slow, real slow. It is something to be avoided.

But one day recently, it was a trip we couldn’t avoid. We drove, or more aptly, inched from Greenbank Road in the West end to Blair Road in the East, a distance of 17 kilometres, in heavy five o’clock traffic. The trip took nearly 40 minutes.

Fuel consumed: zero litres. Not even a decilitre, not an ounce, none, no fuel used.

We were driving the 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, a mid-size SUV equipped with a gasoline-electric hybrid drivetrain.

2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Photo: Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

The Highlander Hybrid is a “full hybrid” system, meaning that the Highlander Hybrid is capable of running in separate gasoline or electric modes, as well as one that combines power from both.

Driving in heavy traffic, and with a light foot on the accelerator, we found the Highlander Hybrid would operate exclusively in electric mode at speeds below 30 km/h, as well as at higher speeds when coasting or maintaining a steady speed.

The result, of course, is excellent fuel economy. The Highlander Hybrid is rated by Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) at 7.5 Litres per 100 kilometres in city driving and 8.1 L/100 km on the highway.

2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Photo: Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

The Hybrid actually uses less fuel in city driving than on the highway, the result of more frequent electric-only motoring in the stop and go of the city.

In addition, the Highlander Hybrid meets Environment Canada’s Tier 2 Bin 3 and is rated as a Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (SULEV) by the California Air Resources Board. One of the most stringent emissions ratings in the industry, SULEV-rated vehicles emit 80 percent fewer smog-forming emissions than conventionally-powered SUV’s.

Our own fuel consumption experience didn’t come close to the government estimate, but at an average of 9.5 L/100 km for our week of highway and city driving, it was significantly better than a gasoline powered Highlander (rated by NRCan at 12.7 L/100 km (22 mpg) in the city and 9.0 L/100 km (31 mpg) on the highway), and way better than any mid-sized SUV we’ve tested in the past year, some of which slurped up fuel to the tune of more than 20 litres per 100 kilometres over a test week.


A little technology (maybe more than a little)

The Highlander’s hybrid system – Toyota calls it Hybrid Synergy Drive – combines a gasoline-powered 3.3-litre V6 engine with a high-speed electric motor – actually, three electric motors.

The front wheels are driven by the V6 engine and a high-speed electric motor that produces peak torque of 247 lb-ft from zero to 1,500 rpm. This provides the extended electric mode operation during low speed and stop-and-go driving. Power from the gasoline engine and front electric-drive motor is distributed to the drive wheels via an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission.

2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Photo: Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

There is also an engine-driven generator and a rear electric motor that can charge the battery pack, which in turn provides power to the electric motors as needed. This former also acts as a starter motor for the gasoline engine and controls the output speed of the transaxle. Power from the engine is directed to the front drive wheels and the engine driven generator by a power-split unit.

The Highlander Hybrid’s V6 is based on the engine in the conventional Highlander but with significant revisions to promote smooth integration with the hybrid system. These include revised calibrations to the Variable Valve Timing with intelligence (VVT-i) and electronic throttle control systems.

The engine alone generates 208 hp at 5,600 rpm, while the high-torque front electric drive motor produces 167 hp at 4,500 rpm. Together the system generates 268 hp and provides the standing-start and mid-range acceleration characteristics of a V8.

2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Photo: Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

The Highlander Hybrid also has on-demand electronic four-wheel drive (4WD). A separate 50-kilowatt electric motor provides up to 96 lb-ft of drive torque as required. Under normal conditions, the Highlander Hybrid operates in front-wheel drive mode to conserve fuel, but when additional traction is required, the system will automatically switch to 4WD mode. Using input from several sensors, the system’s computer calculates the optimal torque distribution between the front and rear wheels to maintain optimum drive torque under all conditions. When additional traction is no longer required, the system automatically returns to front-wheel drive.

A 288-volt DC nickel metal hydride (Ni-MH) battery fitted neatly under the middle seat is boosted and inverted to 650V AC. The battery is charged by the hybrid system’s motor-generators. Additional power to charge the battery is captured through regenerative braking. Kinetic energy, that would normally be lost as heat, is converted to useable energy whenever the vehicle coasts or the brakes are applied.

The power steering pump and air conditioning are driven by electric motors, allowing both to function when the gasoline engine shuts off. Steering is an electronic system, using a 42V DC motor and gear reduction system built into the steering rack housing to provide steering assist.


Highlander and Hybrid

Hybrid Synergy Drive is available on two Highlander models: a base Highlander, priced at $44,205 and the Highlander Limited, with an MSRP of $53,145. Our test vehicle was the latter.

2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited

2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited

2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited

2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited

2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Photos: Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

The five-passenger base Highlander Hybrid includes 6-speaker AM/FM/CD audio system, climate control, 60/40 split folding rear seat, tilt steering, illuminated entry, power windows and locks, fog lamps, cruise control, keyless entry and cloth seats.

The Limited model adds 7-passenger seating with a third row seat, 8-speaker JBL audio with an in-dash 6-CD changer and steering wheel audio controls, power sunroof, leather seat surfaces and heated power driver and front passenger seats, electrochromic rear view mirror with digital compass, anti-theft system, front seat mounted side airbags and front and rear side curtain airbags.

Both models differ from the conventional Highlander with new 17-inch split five-spoke alloy wheels, chrome accented front grille, restyled front bumper, rear LED tail lamps, and chrome licence plate trim.

Unlike the Lexus RX 400h, which shares the Highlander Hybrid’s Hybrid Synergy Drive, system activity is not displayed in a centre console screen, but displayed with smaller, and less intrusive gauges in the instrument cluster. A small display below the speedometer shows the current path of power between engine, motor and battery, while a larger gauge to the left of the speedometer displays the energy generated by the hybrid system measured in kilowatts.

The Highlander also uses a conventional transmission shifter located high on the centre console. There are only five positions – Park, Reverse, Neutral, Drive and ‘B’. This latter position maintains engine power (and engine braking) for downhill situations where the Highlander Hybrid might otherwise freewheel.

2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Photo: Toyota. Click image to enlarge

The leather-covered front seats in our tester were comfortable and provided good leg room. The second row seats also provided good leg room and can “fold and tumble” to expand the cargo area. The split-folding rear seat in the 7-passenger Limited provides room for two small passengers. Access is eased by sliding the second row seat forward, but getting in is not easy. Unfortunately, the third row is not optional. If you want leather, upgraded audio and improved safety features, you must also buy the third-row seat even if you don’t need it.


A little math (okay, a lot)

From the point of view of comfort and convenience, there is little to differentiate the Highlander Hybrid from the conventional Highlander. The big differentiator (other than the hybrid drivetrain) is price. The hybrid Highlander costs $7,305 more for the base 5-passenger model (compared to the 4WD V6 model) and $6,545 more for the Limited – not an insignificant amount and one that might make many commuters think “pay me now or pay me later.”

2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited

2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Photos: Toyota. Click image to enlarge

NRCan estimates that the cost of fuel for a conventional V6-powered highlander is $1,532 (based on a total annual fuel consumption of 2,220 litres and a lowly per litre price of just $.69). A more realistic price of $1.00 would yield an annual cost of $2,220. Using the city driving rating for the Highlander Hybrid (which is 41% better than the conventional V6), the best-case cost saving over a year would be $910 for a driver who stayed close to home. At that rate, you would have to drive a base Highlander Hybrid 8.0 years and a Hybrid Limited 7.3 years before you reached the break-even point on fuel costs. Of course, as the saying goes, your mileage (and fuel consumption) may vary – as ours did.

While the fuel saving benefits of the Highlander Hybrid may not be readily apparent with this mathematical exercise, there are some other points to consider. The cost savings will increase and the time required to reach break even drop as fuel prices increase. Look a couple of years into the future and imagine a per litre cost of $1.50 and the break even point drops from 7.3 years to 4.8 years for the Highlander Hybrid Limited.


Safety

Another point to consider – the Highlander Hybrid comes equipped with VDIM. VDIM is a Toyotachronym for the equally incomprehensible Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management. Better to understand what VDIM is and what it can do for you should you and your Highlander Hybrid ever get out of shape.

2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited

2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Photos: Toyota. Click image to enlarge

VDIM is an advanced new stability system that continuously analyzes driver input (steering, braking, acceleration/deceleration) and compares it to the desired, stable operation. When the computer detects any difference between the two, it instantly calculates what action will correct the deviation and appropriately enhances braking and engine output to maintain stable operation.

VDIM sensors detect when either the front or the rear of the car is losing grip, and the system adjusts brake pressure and engine power to maintain maximum control and manoeuvrability.

It sounds like ordinary vehicle stability control, but there is more. Not only will the system intervene by enhancing braking and reducing engine output, it will also optimize steering assist if needed. Within limits – those set by the laws of physics – it will point the wheels where they should be pointed.

In addition to VDIM, the Highlander Hybrid features ordinary vehicle stability control, traction control, and anti-lock brakes.

Passive safety features include dual-stage front airbags with front passenger status indicator, 3-point seatbelts for all seating positions with pretensioners and force limiters for front occupants, ISO-FIX anchor points for child restraint seats and child-protection rear doorlocks.

The 7-passenger model adds front seat mounted side airbags and roll-sensing front and rear side curtain airbags, features that, in our opinion, should be standard equipment in all vehicles.


Driving Impressions

Yet another point to consider, should you at first balk at the $7000 price difference, is power. The Highlander Hybrid has a whole lot more power than the conventional Highlander. The hybrid drivetrain produces V-8 power, while using less fuel than some four-cylinder SUVs that we’ve tested.

2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited

2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Photos: Toyota. Click image to enlarge

The Highlander Hybrid has nearly 40 more horsepower than the gasoline-powered Highlander (rated at 230 hp). The difference can be felt off the line, accelerating onto the freeway and during passing. Toyota estimates the zero to 60 mph (96 km/h) acceleration time to be 7.3 seconds – very fast for any mid-size – and mid-priced – SUV.

And it goes about this acceleration business very quietly. Under hard acceleration there is a sense of great activity coming from under the hood, but it is distant.

Maybe this isn’t such a good thing. Drive around with your foot planted on the floor all day and fuel economy will suffer, even if it is a hybrid under foot.

The interior is well insulated, eliminating all but the most forceful of exterior noises, even when driving in electric-only mode as we did in rush hour traffic. One would expect to hear more external noises when the counter-balancing thrum of the engine disappears.

The only sound to routinely break the silence was an unusual high-pitched whine evident whenever decelerating or braking.

Being the height of summer, we never encountered weather sufficient to test the Highlander’s all-electric, all-wheel drive system, nor its sophisticated stability control system.

But we did test the brakes and can report that they are just fine. Regenerative brakes provide incredible and noticeable stopping power. In a panic stop, you had better hope the person behind you is alert or driving a hybrid SUV as well. They are sensitive and take some getting used to, but also very effective.


Conclusion

Consumers can now get the fuel-saving benefit of hybrid power in a mid-size and mid-priced SUV. The premium price for the hybrid option is offset by the enhanced safety provided by VDIM and much improved performance. Packaging other enhanced safety features – side impact and side curtain air bags – with options like the third row seat that some buyers don’t want or need, is a negative.


Technical Data: 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited

Base price $44,205
Base price (Limited) $53,145
Options None
Freight $1,310
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $54,555 Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives
Type 4-door, 5-passenger mid-size SUV
Layout transverse front engine/all-wheel-drive
Engine 3.3-litre V6, DOHC, 24-valve VVT-I (Variable Valve Timing with Intelligence)
Horsepower 208 hp @ 5,600 rpm
Torque 212 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm
Electric Motor (front) Permanent Magnetic Motor
Horsepower 167 hp @ 4,500 rpm
Torque 247 lb-ft @ 0 – 1,500 rpm
Electric Motor (rear) Permanent Magnetic Motor
Horsepower 68 hp @ 4,610 – 5,120 rpm
Torque 96 lb-ft @ 0 – 610 rpm
HV Battery Sealed Nickel-Metal Hydride
Maximum power output 45 kw
Voltage 288V
Net power, hybrid system 268 hp
Net Torque Output will vary depending on HV battery state and demand on vehicle
Transmission electronically controlled continuously variable automatic transmission
Tires P225/65R17 all-season radials
Curb weight 1,785 kg (3,935 lb.)
Wheelbase 2,715 mm (106.9 in.)
Length 4,710 mm (185.4 in.)
Width 1,825 mm (71.9 in.)
Height 1,745 mm (68.7 in.)
Cargo capacity 1,124 litres (39.7 cu. ft.) behind second row seats
  297 litres(10.5 cu. ft.) behind 3rd row seats
Towing capacity Towing capacity: 1,587 kg (3,500 lb.)
Fuel consumption City: 7.5 L/100 km (38 mpg Imperial)
  Highway: 8.1 L/100 km (35 mpg Imperial)
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km
Hybrid-related components warranty 8 yrs/130,000 km

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