I like the mid-size Toyota Highlander sport-utility vehicle. It's a quality act. But I prefer it with the traditional gasoline engine.
That's because I've driven the 2006 front-wheel-drive electric-gasoline hybrid version, and I can't figure out why I should pay $7,000 more for it than I'd pay for the equally enjoyable gasoline-only model.
I've tried to keep an open mind on this. But $7,000 can buy a lot of gasoline. If a company wants me to pay $7,000 more for its product, there had better be a good reason.
And, no, a fractional reduction of an already minimal output of tailpipe emissions doesn't cut it. Who are we kidding? Electric-gasoline hybrid vehicles were just curiosities before gasoline prices began rising. As long as we could pump gas more cheaply than anyone else in the developed world, not many of us were concerned about what was coming out of a vehicle's rear end -- unless we were scheduled for a mandatory vehicle emissions test.
Besides, Toyota's traditional crop of Highlanders and other SUVs are "clean." They all meet or exceed the tough air quality standards of the California Air Resources Board.
That being the case, why should I spend $7,000 more? The real-world logic, which ultimately is illogical, is that I'd do it to save gasoline -- that is, to ultimately save money. It's logical because it's selfish. It's illogical because the math doesn't work.
Depending on which oil industry analyst you talk to, it would take five to eight years -- based on the government's "average" annual driving assumption of 15,000 miles per year, with nearly half of that on the highway -- to recoup the Highlander Hybrid's extra cost, assuming a price range of $2 to $2.50 a gallon. The Highlander's fuel prices are likely to be higher because it requires more expensive premium unleaded.
Underlying those cost assumptions are other huge government guesstimates -- namely the Environmental Protection Agency's mileage ratings for the Highlander Hybrid, which are 33 miles per gallon in the city and 28 miles per gallon on the highway for the tested front-wheel-drive model.
Hybrid vehicles get better fuel economy in the city because their electric motors generally do most of the work in stop-and-go urban traffic. The Highlander Hybrid's 3.3-liter V-6 engine, which alone delivers a maximum 208 horsepower, stops running when you stop for red lights and other traffic-pausing signals. A front-wheel-drive electric motor takes over most of the workload in stop-and-go situations.
Together, the gasoline engine and electric motor can develop a maximum 268 hp, which is pretty good oomph, especially considering that the electric motor instantaneously sends its torque -- its twisting power -- to the drive wheels.
All of that technology helps fuel economy; but my week-long drive of the Highlander Hybrid says that the EPA's mileage ratings, once again, are off the mark in the real world. I drove the vehicle in the midst of an early summer heat wave, with 90-degree outside temperatures. That meant running the air conditioner, which sucked fuel from the ersatz fuel-sipper, partly because the engine kept turning itself on in traffic jams to help power the air conditioner.
Also, hot blacktop roads are sticky. Sticky roads increase tire-road friction. More work requires more energy.
I also like music with my driving. Sound systems need power, which means more energy. I drove the Highlander Hybrid at median highway speeds, which usually are higher than posted speeds, which uses more energy. The upshot was a real-world fuel usage of 28 miles per gallon in the city and 24 miles per gallon on the highway, which is still very good, especially for a mid-size sport-utility vehicle.
Okay, with real-world driving, maybe it won't take eight years to recoup the Highlander premium; maybe it'll take only 51/2 years. But I'm still not ready to part with that extra $7,000 to get into the hybrid. Toyota tells me that I'm getting a good deal, because the Highlander Hybrid has about $2,000 worth of new equipment in its pricing, effectively reducing its purchase premium to about $5,000. And the federal government, in effect, also says: "Go for it!"
The government says it likes hybrids so much that it is willing to give me up to $2,000 -- this year -- if I buy one. Next year, the government is offering less -- up to $500 in tax breaks. The "up to" part is based on annual income. If you make more money, you get less "up to." The government has a sense of humor.
But I'll do my laughing in the gasoline-only version. I like hearing that engine kick over the second I turn the ignition key. I don't like waiting for sensors to recognize that it's time for the engine to go to work, which is what happens in the Highlander Hybrid. I love all of that scrumptious torque the Highlander Hybrid's electric motor delivers to the drive wheels. But for $7,000, I'm willing to let that go, too.
Correction and clarification: In my May 29 review of the Subaru B9 Tribeca, I should have said that the Subaru Forester was "among the first" crossover vehicles, not the first. And to clarify, the Forester was indeed followed by the crossover Outback H6. The Legacy Outback that preceded the Forester was marketed as a wagon.