Easily the most practical hybrid SUV on the market, the 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is a fully functional family vehicle that just happens to return better fuel mileage than other crossovers its size.
Unlike smaller hybrid cars that offer readily apparent fuel economy benefits, the case for hybrid sport-utility vehicles is less clear-cut. On one hand, they promote wider acceptance of hybrid technology by virtue of their family-friendly packaging. As detractors are quick to point out, though, some hybrid SUVs aren't radically more fuel-efficient than their non-hybrid counterparts -- yielding benefits of the feel-good variety rather than measurable mileage gains. However, the improvements on the redesigned 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid are undeniable. In addition to being a larger, more flexible family vehicle than the original Highlander Hybrid, judged by the EPA's revised rating system, it's no less frugal with fuel.
If you ever read up on the previous Toyota Highlander Hybrid, the drivetrain components of the new version will seem familiar. The main power source is a 3.3-liter gasoline V6 engine, which is rated at 208 horsepower in this application. With the propulsion assistance of two electric motors, one in front and one in rear, the '08 Highlander Hybrid produces a cumulative 270 hp. A third electric motor functions as a generator and engine starter. As in the past, Toyota's hybrid SUV has what the company calls an "electronically controlled continuously variable transmission." This is not a CVT in the traditional sense and is instead a simplified power-split device that coordinates the efforts of the various power sources.
Given the presence of the rear-mounted electric motor, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid is technically a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Most of the time, though, it functions in front-drive mode; the electric motor engages the rear wheels only when extra traction or torque is needed. Bear in mind that this setup differs significantly from the 4WD/all-wheel-drive system on the regular Highlander: There's no center differential and the V6 engine never provides power to the rear wheels. The upshot is that buyers shopping for a serious snow vehicle may not find the hybrid Highlander robust enough to meet their needs.
For consumers living in milder climates, the 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid should prove quite practical. Its available third-row seat is roomy enough for adults in a pinch, and easy-folding second-row seats make it a cinch for 6-year-olds to seat themselves without help. Alternatively, they can just walk through the center aisle, as the 40/20/40 second-row bench has a "Center Stow" feature that allows you to remove and stow the center "20" section, leaving a pair of captain's chairs just like in a minivan.
Although larger families will still prefer the added space of a real minivan or roomier crossover SUVs like the GMC Acadia and Mazda CX-9, Toyota's Highlander Hybrid should have considerable appeal for environmentally minded buyers. Indeed, with EPA estimates of 27 mpg city/25 mpg highway, this is the most fuel-efficient seven-passenger vehicle on sale for 2008.