Early Impressions of a Highlander Hybrid Driver

Spencer E. Farris, a trial lawyer and syndicated columnist from St. Louis, Mo., recently purchased a Toyota Highlander Hybrid. He describes the move from a macho diesel truck to an environmentally friendly utility vehicle as “a reverse midlife crisis.”

I have owned my Toyota Highlander SUV hybrid for a little over three months. It was the replacement for my beloved Dodge 4×4 diesel pickup. When diesel prices hit the three-dollar mark, I figured it was easier to rent a truck for the eight days a year I really need a truck.

The next question was what to get for a replacement. An SUV seemed the perfect vehicle for a man who hauls more kids than stuff, and owns a trailer to pull behind. Still, SUVs aren’t exactly known for fuel efficiency, and I was sick and tired of supporting the oil industry.

Hybrids have been on my radar for more than a little while, as I subscribe to Mother Earth News. So, after weighing the anemic performance of the only alternative to a Toyota—the Ford Escape Hybrid—I chose the Highlander.

Sports Car Meets Sports Ute

This little SUV is a hybrid of another kind, a cross between a sports car and a sport ute. While the styling won’t turn many heads, the acceleration of the HyHi will take off a few hats. This little beast has as many horses as my old truck, at half the weight. I find the steering to be light and nimble, and I can now get into tight parking spots. The HyHi moves like a sports car, but hauls like a truck, with plenty of storage room in the back. I recently pulled a trailer load of ATVs without any problem, and actually backed the trailer up a steep grade with ease.

I have a HyHi Limited, with the navigation package. It’s definitely worth the extra money for the big screen and turn-by-turn directions. Although you can’t change destinations unless you are at a complete stop, the interface is easy to use and loaded with features, like identifying shopping or restaurants in the area with ease. Toyota hasn’t skimped on luxury. The cabin, while a bit tight, is well appointed and quiet. The leather trim is top notch, as is the rest of the trim package. The cabin is relatively quiet as well. I think the sound system is a bit underpowered. Given the tie in between the stereo and DVD screen, there is not much way to replace the stereo. A bigger system or amp don’t seem likely. I am stuck with a well-mannered sound system, nothing more.

I am a bit of a gadget freak, so the fact that there is easy access to the under-dash storage and wiring harness scores big with me. There are nifty little storage spots for antenna boosters and power amps.

Mileage Issues

The biggest complaint I have about the vehicle is the EPA fuel rating. I first thought that the 32 city mileage on the sticker was written by a dyslexic tester, as I have yet to average over 23 in all around driving. I can only assume that the tests were performed downhill with a strong tail wind. My friend with a HyHi is just now averaging 25 in combination driving. Sure, 23 is fantastic efficiency for a vehicle that can seat seven or haul a lot of stuff, but a far cry from the promised mileage. Maybe this will improve as the vehicle breaks in. (As of 6,000 miles, though, it hasn’t.) If not, shame on the EPA!

Speaking of mileage, the big screen from the navigation package helps you learn to drive by showing where the power is being generated during a trip. The gas engine cycles on and off without much fanfare, and the screen is a nice way to track the use of electric power versus gasoline. The transition between electric to gas power is seamless and imperceptible most of the time.

I really had to get used to turning on the key and not hearing anything. On cold days, there is a bit of vibration at idle when the gas engine cycles on, but not enough to be even a small annoyance.

Learning to Love

The hybrid’s initial cost versus the conventional Highlander is hard to justify in terms of any kind of payoff. For me, however, replacing a big diesel truck, it was a no-brainer. While I am growing to love the HyHi, it is not without flaws. The ugly styling and misleading gas mileage top the list. Other considerations:

  • Where are the cup holders? None really in the front, unless you haven’t filled up the little square slots in the center console with other stuff. SIX in the back seat though, so maybe the kids can hold your drinks.
  • Seat/steering wheel combination is not made for tall folks. I have the seat at maximum backup, and am only six feet tall. Without a telescoping steering wheel, it is difficult to get comfortable while driving.
  • The back row seating will only accommodate baby dolls or garden gnomes. Like the EPA rating, the seven-passenger advertisement is misleading.

All in all, I am pleased with my purchase. I got an extended warranty because Toyota promised to return my money back if I didn’t use the warranty. Fit and finish are very good on the HyHi, as with all Toyotas. Even with its lack of character, I am looking forward to years of use, and maybe even loving the HyHi someday. For now, I am happily “in like” with the vehicle.