2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Click image to enlarge
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Review and photos by Haney Louka

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2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Winnipeg, Manitoba – “Hybrid.” When attached to a car’s name, it’s a word that conjures images of a cleaner, greener future. One that gives us hope that some day our reliance on nonrenewable resources like fossil fuels will be a thing of the past.

In the automotive context, hybrid refers to the ability of a vehicle’s powertrain to provide propulsion using two sources of power rather than one. To date, mass-produced hybrids have used a combination of gasoline-fuelled internal combustion engines and battery-powered electric motors.

There’s one more important distinction to be made in mass-produced gas-electric hybrids: a “parallel” hybrid uses an electric motor to start a gas engine and boost its output, but the gas engine is always required to propel the vehicle.

2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Such a system has been most heavily used by Honda and has met with limited success: the Accord Hybrid was discontinued last year and the word on the street is that the next fuel-sipping Accord will be a diesel rather than a hybrid.

A “parallel-series” hybrid, in contrast, can move a vehicle with either gas or electricity on its own, or both. That’s the type of system that Toyota, Ford, and Nissan employ (the latter two working with Toyota to varying degrees). Such technology has taken Toyota to the forefront of hybrid technology such that its products are considered benchmarks in this burgeoning market niche.

Toyota’s hybrid products range from the $30K purpose-built Prius all the way up to the $125,000 Lexus LS 600h L. And somewhere near the more affordable end of that spectrum is the subject of this week’s test drive, the second-generation Highlander Hybrid.

The conventional gas-powered Highlander is a personal favourite of mine. It does everything right: it’s practical, looks good, and is well rounded enough to be in the top three of its class. It has a well crafted interior with an ergonomically sound design, with the highlight for me being a rear-view camera that’s not tied to a navigation system. In all, the gas-powered Highlander is not a bad starting point.

2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

And the fact that it’s a hybrid makes it even better, right? Actually, folks, this is where the story takes an unexpected turn.

Let’s start with the pricing: the base Highlander Hybrid carries a sticker price of $41,075, or $4,175 more than the base V6 Highlander. That’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, though, because the Hybrid has some premium amenities such as the rear-view camera and Smart Key that don’t come on the base version. It’s not by accident that the two models can’t be directly price-compared, but I’ll try anyway. Were it possible to equip the gas and hybrid versions identically, I’d guess that the price difference would be around $3,000.

The powertrains are obviously different: the gas-engined Highlander gets a 3.5-litre V6 while the hybrid uses a 3.3-litre V6 in conjunction with electric motors front and rear to generate the same 270 horsepower. The gas version generates 36 more lb-ft of torque than the hybrid. The hybrid is primarily a front-driver (the rear electric motor provides supplementary traction when required) while the gas Highlander uses a full-time all-wheel drive system. The gas version uses a five-speed automatic transmission while the Hybrid gets a continuously-variable transmission (CVT) in the interest of fuel economy.

2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

And fuel economy is what it’s all about, right? The conventional Highlander has published fuel consumption figures of 12.3 L/100 km in the city and 8.8 on the highway. Compare that to the Hybrid’s numbers: 7.4 L/100 km in the city and 8.0 on the highway. That’s a substantial difference. The Hybrid’s lower city fuel consumption (contrary to that of any gas-powered vehicle) is a result of its ability to turn the gas engine off while stopped and in situations where power demand is very low.

The Hybrid’s powertrain is said to be cleaner-burning as well, meeting Tier 2 Bin 3 of the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards where the conventional Highlander complies with a more mainstream Bin 5 rating (Bin 3 tailpipe emissions are about half of those in Bin 5). A closer look at the units of measure for these standards reveals that pollutants are measured in grams per mile driven. That means that fuel consumption has a direct influence on which standards are being met, so whether the Hybrid’s emissions are that much lower than the gas version’s depends on whether real-world fuel economy is consistent with the official figures.

But my practical experience didn’t bear those fuel consumption numbers out: the ambient temperature during my week with the Highlander Hybrid ranged from zero degrees to minus 25. In primarily stop-and-go driving in the city, I averaged 14 L/100 km, or almost double that of the published figure. Toyota tells me that both conventional and hybrid vehicles will suffer from increased fuel consumption in cold weather, which is true.

2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

But I would contend that the hybrid is hit much harder than the gas version-to the point that its advantage is reduced to almost zero-because it loses its hybrid-ness in cold weather.

My test vehicle, even after the engine was up to operating temperature, refused to use the engine shutoff feature as long as I had the heat on inside. Not too useful in our climate, is it?

I wasn’t able to test the conventional Highlander in identical conditions, but my experience tells me that it would have consumed around 16 L/100 km in the same driving situations.

There is an EV mode that allows one to operate the Highlander using exclusively electric power, but nine times out of ten I got the “unavailable” beep when I pushed the console-mounted button. Next to the EV button was one labeled “ECON” which retards the throttle response to a point that begs the question: Who dropped the anchor? The CVT already made the car feel sluggish, but this is ridiculous.

2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

All of this in a package that doesn’t exhibit the same drivability as the conventional Highlander – because the Hybrid operates primarily in front-drive mode, it lacks the balance and well rounded performance of its gas-powered sibling. Torque-steer shouldn’t be an issue in an all-wheel drive vehicle.

So there you have it. Compared with the V6 Highlander, the Hybrid is more expensive, less fun to drive, and all for a marginal decrease in fuel consumption, at least in winter. Those who understand the joy of driving need not apply. I think the Europeans are right to focus on cleaner-burning diesel engines. But please, give us more of them to choose from.

Pricing: 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Base price: $41,075

Options: None
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $ 1,390
Price as tested: $42,565
Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives

  • Specifications: 2008 Toyota Highlander

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