Upside: Excellent fuel economy for a mid-size SUV, even in the cauldron of a Washington summer.
Ride, acceleration and handling: Good ride and handling. The Highlander Hybrid does not feel as nimble as the traditional gasoline model, which weighs less (3,705 pounds for the traditional front-wheel-drive Highlander vs. 4,070 pounds for the hybrid version). But torque lovers will flip out over the way the electric motor ships power to the drive wheels on acceleration.
Head-turning quotient: Conservative, inoffensive exterior. Borderline ascetic interior -- designed for guilt-free sin.
Body style/layout: The Highlander Hybrid is a mid-size sport-utility vehicle in which two drive systems -- one gasoline-powered and the other employing battery-powered motors -- work in tandem to produce maximum power with a minimum fuel penalty. No use of electric cords is required. The vehicle is available in front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive.
Drive system: The Highlander Hybrid comes with a standard 3.3-liter V-6 engine that develops 208 horsepower at 5,600 revolutions per minute and 212 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400 rpm. Combined with the electric-powered drive system in the front-wheel-drive model, total system output is 268 hp. The power system is mated to an automatic, continuously variable transmission.
Cargo and fuel capacities: The Highlander Hybrid seats seven people. But the third-row seats are for short people only. Maximum cargo space is 80.6 cubic feet with the second- and third-row seats folded. Fuel capacity is 19.1 gallons of required premium unleaded in the front-wheel-drive model.
Mileage: I averaged 28 miles per gallon in the city, with the battery-powered motor saving gas, and 24 on the highway.
Safety: Side air bags for front-seat occupants. Front and rear roof air bags. Four-wheel anti-lock disk brakes, and stability control.
Price: Base manufacturer's suggested retail price is $33,030. Dealer's invoice price on base model is $29,561.There are no incentives at the moment. In fact, because of the hybrid craze, expect some dealers to ask for premiums. Options will boost cost. Prices sourced from Toyota and www.intellichoice.com.
Purse-strings note: Keep in mind that every dollar you pay over the manufacturer's suggested retail price makes it more difficult for you to recoup the premium charged for this fuel-efficient hybrid vehicle.