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Toyota has released details about its forthcoming 2011 Highlander hybrid SUV, which will receive a major revamping for the first time since 2008. And while there will be a host of new options and features both inside and out, it’s the Highlander’s new engine and fuel economy numbers that deserve the most attention.
Next year’s Highlander hybrid will be outfitted with a brand new 3.5-liter V6 engine, replacing the the 3.3-liter, 270-horsepower engine of its predecessors. The increase in power boosts this year’s model to 280 horsepower—ten more than what’s available in the the conventional V6 model. But where in the past Toyota has opted to pair its hybrid system with a slightly less powerful engine for maximum efficiency, this year’s version of the SUV will provide improvements in both power and fuel economy.
The new Highlander hybrid is rated for an EPA-estimated 28 mpg in both city and highway driving conditions. That amounts to a 1-mpg uptick in city mileage and a 3-mpg improvement on the highway, compared to the 27/25 ratings for the 2010 model.
So why did Toyota sacrifice added efficiency for of a little extra horsepower? Reviews of the 2010 Highlander hybrid’s performance were generally very positive, and as the only mid-size hybrid SUV on the market, the only competitors for the vehicle were the sister offerings from Ford and Mercury—which didn’t offer seating for seven, but were cheaper and provided nearly 20 percent more MPGs than the Highlander.
Though we can only speculate as to the reasoning behind the new 3.5-liter engine, one would think that the increased efficiency provided by this year’s hybrid powertrain could have been configured to match the 270 horsepower of its conventional counterpart and provide even more MPGs—had again been attached to a 3.3-liter engine.
Toyota’s decision may have been in response to recently slowing hybrid sales, with the carmaker opting to put its gas-electric SUV up against its conventional peers instead of just trying to win the hybrid SUV market. This year’s Highlander will give customers power that’s on par with most other V6-powered SUVs but fuel economy that’s in a league of its own for its mid-size class. Whether or not this strategy turns around sales numbers for the vehicle—which have fallen 46 percent over last year—remains to be seen.