Toyota Highlander Hybrid

According to Webster’s Dictionary, a hybrid is an organism that is the offspring of genetically dissimilar parents or stock. The best example: a mule is a cross between a horse and a donkey.

As the price of gasoline continues to rise above $3 a gallon, more and more American drivers are seeking fuel-efficient vehicles.

Automakers are glad to respond by building numerous cars – – and sport utility vehicles – – with hybrid engines, i.e., ones that rely on both battery and gasoline for their horsepower. One of the newest vehicles in the hybrid pipeline is the 2006 Toyota Highlander, a hefty, comfortable SUV. As you may recall, Toyota has been in the forefront of hybrid vehicles, having produced the Prius sub-compact in 2000, a gas-stingy car that is still very popular, since it can achieve 60 miles per gallon in the city an 51 mpg on the highway.

The Highlander, recently ntroduced by Toyota, is chock full of whistles and bells, including a display on the dash that tells the driver which method of power is being used. The way this hybrid works is that when the vehicle’s brakes are applied, the resulting energy is transferred to the batteries, thus recharging them.

Thus, there is no need to plug the vehicle in a power socket to recharge it.

Recently, Toyota excecutives announced plans to increase production of their hybrid fleet, according to CNN. At the Frankfurt auto show in Germany, Toyota said that it ntends to offer hybrid versions of all its models, although it did not give a time frame. Toyota also said it expects to make as many as 400,000 hybrid vehicles in 2006. That’s an ambitious goal for the Japanese automaker – – whose Camry, produced in Kentucky, by the way – – was the top-selling passenger car in America again last year.

Now for some details about the new Highlander Hybrid:

– – Our test vehicle was a 4-wheel drive Limited Edition model with a 24-valve V-6 engine that produces 208 horsepower and extremely low emissions. The vehicle weighs in at 4,245 pounds, making it a rather stout steed and has seating for seven adults.

– – With a 17.2-gallon fuel tank, the Highlander should be able to cruise at least 500 miles or more before it needs to make a gas stop for regular fuel. Many other vehicles in its size have bigger tanks and appetites, but do not have the gas mileage the Highlander affords: 31 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway. The reason this SUV gets better mileage in the city is that more power and engine efficiency comes from the nickel-metal hydride batteries at lower speeds.

– – Safety is definitely a plus when buying a Highlander. In addition to front and side airbags, the Highlander also comes standard with side curtain airbags. Additionally, the Highlander boasts side-impact door beams to keep occupants secure in the event of a crash.

– – For comfort and convenience, the Highlander has a JBL premium cassette player and 6-disc CD changer within easy reach of the driver; a fold-flat, third row, reclining seat; cupholders galore and split, 60/40 fold-flat second row seats with right-side walk-in function.

– – A power moonroof, LED taillights and power mirrors are all standard features on the Limited model also.

– – Cruise control, tilt steering wheel, remote keyless entry, power window and door locks, fog lamps and automatic on/off headlamps round out the Highlander package.

– – Aesthetically, the silver and butted maple wood trim adds class to the comfortable leather seats throughout this SUV.

– – For a mere $2,000 more, the Highlander can include a touch-screen DVD navigation system that is basically a road encyclopedia and atlas.

Now the fine print:

MSRP: As tested, the Highlander had a sticker price of $41,815, which included the $2,000 DVD system and a $525 destination fee.

MILEAGE: 31 mpg in the city and 27 on the highway. Not bad for such an imposing vehicle.

Basic warranty on the Highlander is 36 months/36,000 miles for all components. Additionally, the powertrain has a 60 months/60,000 miles warranty. The hybrid related components are covered even longer – – 8 years of 100,000 miles for the battey control module and other elements.

For comfort, class and style, the Highlander is hard to beat and should be a big seller for Toyota. The vehicle also qualifies for a federal tax break.

The bad, is that in its initial year, there were only five colors available – – super white, millennium silver metallic, black, Sonora gold pearl and Bluestone metallic – – and four interior trims – – fabric in ivory or ash and leather in ash or ivory. We would have like to seen one of these in metallic or candy apple red.

Now for the ugly. When you get behind the wheel of the Highlander and insert the ignition key, there’s a slight hesitation and then a “Ready” light glows on the dash. The vehicle is so quiet at startup, that it’s hard to tell when it has cranked. That’s a real drawback. The best way we discovered to tell if the SUV was running was to look at the DVD navigation system and if the initial touch screen urging you to agree to the terms of using the system popped on, you were ready to roll.

The Highlander also deseves bigger and more prominently displayed badging, to let other drivers know that indeed this is a special, hybrid vehicle that not only gets great mileage but also runs cleaner with less harmful emissions.

Ford’s entry in the hybrid marketplace.

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