2008 Gas Versus Hybrid Toyota Highlander Shoot-Out

There is simply no comparison between the 2008 Toyota Highlander and the previous model. The new Highlander is bigger in every dimension from horsepower to interior space without any loss in fuel mileage. The good news is that Toyota infused this SUV with a larger engine, smoother ride and an available third row of seats that is more habitable. The bad news is that the new version is not as nimble and much more isolated from road feel. And, yes, more expensive with the hybrid starting around $34,000 and the gas version priced at $27, 300.

To better provide potential consumers a realistic comparison we drove a 2008 Highlander Hybrid that was a preproduction model. That means that it was close to the real version, but lacked all of the features such as a sophisticated stereo and leather seating. The other vehicle was a loaded Highlander with all wheel drive. Despite the similar exterior looks, the only real differences are the taillights and grill; the interior is identical save for some hybrid monitoring instrumentation.

What is most dramatic is the exterior appearance of the Highlander hybrid. No longer the dowdy, nearly invisible SUV, the new model is sharper looking with large slab sides.

The Highlander stands taller on 19-inch rims, has 7.3 inches of ground clearance, and is about 4 inches longer and 3 inches wider. Standard features on the hybrid include leather-trimmed seats, a power rear door, AM/FM/six-disc in-dash CD changer, 19-inch alloy wheels, fog lamps and a third-row bench seat. If you order the optional GPS you can get the highly recommended backup camera monitor with a 3.5-inch screen.

Both vehicles use the new a V6 with a 3.3 liter in the hybrid and a 3.5 liter in the gas only version. Coinsidentially, both SUVs have the same listed horsepower at 270. The hybrid has a continuously variable transmission and the gas powered version a five speed automatic. The hybrid has an EV mode that allows it to travel at slow speeds for about five miles on just the battery. We had a pre-production model that didn’t appear to want to go any distance without the engine running. Indeed, our mileage for this early model was far less than the Hybrid Synergy Drive system’s 31 mpg in the city and 27 mpg government findings. After a few hundred miles of mixed driving the hybrid got about ten percent healthier fuel mileage. You can probably get 24 mpg with the hybrid.

The extra power from the hybrid’s battery pack makes it much faster and quicker reacting thanks to the electric motors that provide instant torque. On the highway the hybrid Highlander accelerators quicker than a V8 and with a very linear flow of power thanks to the transmission. It would take a Porsche SUV to keep pace, but that wouldn’t be for long as these German heavyweights suck gas nearly twice as fast the Toyota, and premium is highly recommended.

In real life use we seldom got over 23 mpg highway driving at a constant speed in Toyota’s gas version and our best with they hybrid was 25 in city driving. With the 17.2 gallon tank this makes a 350 mile range a possibility.  This is a heavy SUV registering over 4000 pounds for the two wheel model and 600 pounds more for the deluxe hybrid.. The maximum cargo capacity has increased from about 81 cubic feet to over 94 in the 2008 model. There are also a host of features and options from the power lift gate, to Bluetooth, to an auxiliary MP3 input port, to a backup camera, to a key recognition fob and a 5000-pound towing capacity package available.

Mom’s view:  I must be getting conservative in my old age, but I like the feel of the old Highlander better. It had a handiness that I liked, was very unfussy to park, and was easier to get in and out of. On the other hand, this review is a comparison of the new Highlander hybrid and the non-electric assist model. 

My first impression about the hybrid was that it rides quieter and has more features. The hybrid is quiet and the steering feel is weighted well. Side winds do affect both models as there are large flat sides on both models that are defenseless against parking lot dings or wind blasts. The brakes have a supple feel and the ride is plush, not unlike other SUVs in this market segment. The Ford Edge has a crisper feel, the General Motors Acacia a more responsive feel, and the Dodge Durango just feels old. Honda’s Pilot is still a player in this field. Outside of the Highlander none of the competition offers a hybrid, except the smaller Ford/Mercury Escape.

Safety wise the Highlander offers antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist, there are also side-impact airbags for the front seats, a knee airbag for the driver, active head restraints and an electronic stability system. A hill-start assist that keeps a vehicle from rolling back on a steep hill and a downhill assist feature that controls the downhill speeds on slick roads are also part of the Highlander’s safety array. Overall, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Highlander its highest ratings, but the passenger side crash rating was not as high.

Since there is an optional third seat side curtain airbags are provided for all three rows of seats. Of vital interest to all SUV buyers is an improved vehicle stability control unit as all SUVs are top heavy and much more likely to roll over. That is why we always recommend a minivan as it is safer, gets better fuel mileage, and is easier to handle. Toyota has done its best to make this a safe vehicle including active headrests for the driver and front passenger with active whiplash protection.

Another valuable feature that I have found difficult to live without was the Smart Start and Entry keyless access. All you need is to have the key fob with you. The car instantly recognizes the fob, unlocks the door at a touch, and makes starting as simple as pushing the ignition button near your right knee. It’s no longer necessary to search for the key in your purse or pocket.

An advocated option is for the rearview camera because visibility to the rear is very limited. The new side view mirrors are quite good, but the best view is over the sharply descending hood where you can easily judge where the Highlander’s front bumper ends. This is very valuable in parking lots that simply have a white line to delineate the end of one parking space and the start of the next. If you want a quick test on who can drive a vehicle and those who simply aim their ride just check a parking lot and notice how many SUVs have their noses stuck into the parking space belonging to the vehicle in front of them. Most bad drivers park their vehicles based on where the other car is parking. The good forward visibility in the Highlander makes good parking easier, but the high ridge on the hood does limit the view somewhat.

Toyota has taken a handy Highlander, listened to the input of buyers, and created what they wanted in the form of a larger, more feature laden SUV. The problem with this method is that it always produces a past tense vehicle. What a buyer wants when gas is $2 a gallon is different than when gas is $4. The Highlander is a better vehicle than its predecessor, but the gas mileage should be improved and a rethink about the door arm rests that make it difficult to reach the window switches is due.

I was not impressed with the largeness of the model. However, I really liked the responsiveness of the hybrid version. Here was a powerful and very fuel friendly full-sized SUV that is exhilarating to drive. I highly recommend you go down to your Toyota dealership and drive both versions and ponder these questions beforehand. First, does your driving necessitate the need for the back-up camera? Secondly, are you willing to pay the extra for all wheel drive? Next, do you drive enough to justify the extra cost of the hybrid version and its many extra features? Finally, do you require this large a vehicle? The Toyota RAV4 is a terrific SUV that gets excellent fuel mileage, has a good-sized cargo bay, and only the spare tire hanging off the rear hatch prevents it from making it the best of its breed.

Dad’s view:  Much more of a looker, the Highlander is notable for its performance and lack of intrusive noise. There is little doubt that this SUV has gone through a significant testing program designed to reduce vibration and din. Even the usual source of wind noise, the side view mirror, has been significantly redesigned to smooth out the passing air. These are ample sized mirrors, too. Unlike the horrible mirrors on the Hummer H2 these are both useful and classy.

A much more sophisticated interior greets the customer and it has a Lexus-like feel and look. The controls are easy to read, reach, and use. The seats are all comfortable, although those in the optional third row of seating are stiff. Interestingly, the second row of seats are captain’s chairs. This reduces comfortable seating capacity by one, but Toyota’s Center Stow seat can be used as a third seat.  The captain’s chairs even have a track so that they can be slid forward to allow third row occupants more foot room.

If you need the extra seating the third row provides on a consistent basis get the Toyota Sienna, which is being offered at handsome prices.  In the Highlander the flat, two-person bench is adequate, but mainly for children. It is easy to raise or lower using levers that are simple to use. In the Sienna it is much more comfortable and easier to access. Of note is the concave mirror mounted on the front ceiling of the Highlander so that the driver can quickly keep track of what is occurring in the rear seats.

Driving both the Highlander gas and hybrid versions of the Highlander one is struck by how familiar they feel. Here is truly the generic SUV. The ride is absorbent and the interior space more than generous. Even with 55 more horsepower than the previous model, the Highlander’s new 270 horsepower 3.5 liter V6 get similar fuel mileage. The electronically controlled five-speed transmission is the only one available whether or not you order the front-wheel drive or a full-time 4-wheel drive version on the gas version.

Young working woman’s view: The pricing on the Highlander is quite dramatic. The base model starts around $27,500 and the loaded Hybrid Limited all wheel drive model is priced over $40,000. In between there is a Sport Model and a Limited. These are all minor issues as the basics of the Highlander are essentially the same. It has a powerful engine, an abundance of room, and a need to order options to make it handy for a woman. Those options start with the power lift gate. Without it the tailgate is heavy to pull down and difficult to reach if you are less than 5’3”.  The back up camera is a must and you need the GPS option to see it as without this option you just have a tiny screen as a monitor. If you order the GPS you must also order the JBL audio upgrade. The 19-inch rims and tires offer superior riding and handling and are also options. In other words, the Highlander has crept into Lexus RX territory in terms of pricing if you want these civilizing extra features.  I have known the Lexus RX and the Highlander is no Lexus.

College going male’s view: Too big, too bland, and expensive are my feelings. The RAV4 is much more tidy, is more fun to drive, and is easier to use when cutting through  traffic. In other words, the Highlander continues to be a family oriented SUV for those who like to blend in and can’t accept the fact that the Sienna is superior for family purposes. On the plus side is that this is a much-improved Highlander. The dash is vastly improved, the cupholders very handy, and the instrument readouts clear and attractive. The seats are first rate and the turning radius short at 39 feet enough to make mall parking less of a challenge. As for hybrid versus gas, I would go with the hybrid. For the extra money you are going to get a very fast SUV that gets good fuel mileage for what it is, especially in commuting situations. I think you’ll get the extra money you have to pay for the hybrid back at resale, too.

Family conference: If you don’t need the extra room and don’t mind the bland styling get a deal on a 2007 model. However, there is a great deal of improvement in the 2008 models. As for ordering the more loaded hybrid version, it is worth it if you need those extra features. The small improvement in fuel mileage isn’t that great and you have to be aware of additional maintenance costs. Our recommendation is stay with the base version, and if you don’t need the third row of seats the RAV 4 is much more nimble, more fuel efficient, and quicker on its feet. The RAV 4 and the Subaru Forester are good vehicles in the smaller crossover category.

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Real life gas mileage about various hybrids