2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid – Halfway to the Future

Lincoln Steffens, an American Journalist of the Muckraker school, is likely most famous for is 1921 quote, “I’ve seen the future, and it works.” Well, this week driving the 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, I can say I too have been to the future, it works, and surprisingly I quite like it.

Muckraking, at it’s inception was not a dismissible term, but synonymous with investigative reporting that took aim at governments, industries, and established institutions – progressivism enough to have it’s members mistaken for communist.

Ralph Nader is a muckraker. So was Upton Sinclair. That’s not exactly tabloid-journalist company to be keeping.

To that list I’d like to ad Dan Neil for calling to tasks the debacle that was awarding the Tahoe Hybrid “Green Car of the Year” by the Green Car Journal. Mr. Neil exposed this particular Greenwashing for what it is (http://www.latimes.com/classified/automotive/highway1/la-hy-neil28nov28,0,510935,print.story) – fertilizer worthy a coffin shaped plot of roses, under which common sense lay buried. Meanwhile outside the spotlight, the 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is quietly going about the business of meeting the SUV needs of those troubled by environmental conscious and current gas prices.

The Highlander Hybrid is not a monolithic SUV of Lake Tahoe proportions, its 4508lbs curbweight is a piffling when compared to the Tahoe’s 5,313lbs. Neither is svelte, leading to the biggest folly of “eco-friendly” SUVs – sheer mass and the fuel required to overcome its inertia. Newton may have got that “object at rest tends to stay at rest” bit right.

Technically though, the Highlander Hybrid is a cross-over based on the Toyota Camary platform wrapped in an SUV exterior. Yet all the SUV elements are here. The Highlander Hybrid seats 7 in a pinch and 4 handily. There’s an ample 206mm (8.1 inches) ground clearance for as much soft-roading as any SUV is likely to do. The broad flat seats will accommodate the broadest and flattest bottoms among us, while heaters gently bring them to a gentle sweat. Really everything is in its SUV place.

Aesthetically it won’t bowl you, the Highlander Hybrid equal parts mumsy and dadsy. It is a conservative looking beast, and despite the body shape and larger tires still conveys a sense of generic car-ness. You’ll be pressing the remote’s panic button to find it amongst the other billion SUVs in the Ikea parking lot. As you try to make your escape from the shopping hordes, the rear backup camera ensures you’re not likely to hit any of the Highlanders brethren.

You can take the backup camera as a hint that our Limited edition was loaded to the gunnels with all the appropriate technology. Touchscreen GSP, heated seats, wood trim, leather interior, sunroof, open airy cabin – the Highlander carries all the standard luxo-SUV hallmarks executed with Toyota’s sensible aplomb.

At it’s very best in mixed use the Highlander Hybrid rewarded us with 9.2L/100km (25.6 mpg). That is if you drive it in an absolutely saintly manner, flick off the ECON switch and tromp the throttle and 270hp and 212 ft-lbs of torque will devastate that figure as the 3.3L V6 swings into full action. Sluggish? Not at all, but body roll and a lack of feel through the wheel discourage such disregard of the hybrid SUV’s purpose.

No doubt on the efficiency front there is room for improvement. Adaptive cruise control would help further improve fuel economy by smoothing the on-and-off application of throttle on freeways. That’s an easy technological addition, relatively speaking. More difficult is the weight of the Highlander – perhaps a slim-fast diet to match its hybrid drive train is in order?

What stands out most about the Highlander Hybrid isn’t the technology, so much as the quiet. The cabin cocoons you and with electric or gas motors running only one word is needed to define the Highlander – “quiet”.

Propelled forwards by two electric motors out back, the Highlander whispers through town. So rigged for silent running, you’re ex will never hear you coming. If Toyota were smart they’d produce a matt black “Stalker” edition.

Here in lies a glimpse of a future, and one I’m shocked to say I’ve fallen head over heals for. It is a world of gliding through town in silence, neighbourhoods in complete hush, sidewalk café conversations without deliberation about road noise, towns as quiet as meadows, and freeways you could talk next to. In time pedestrians would learn to look both ways again.

I sit here typing as a convert. I am a motorcyclist through and through; I’ve been an addict of the pompone beat of Ducati L-twins, the howling rage of Suzuki inline, and the burble of Honda V-fours. Yet, the concept of any vehicle whisking along in silence is so much more appealing – so much more natural. In silence true mechanical poetry and elegance is exposed.

I’ve been to the future, and what a beautifully quiet place it is. For the moment though, with the Highlander Hybrid and it’s like, we are only halfway there.

Toyota Highlander Limited: $54,220.00
For more information: http://toyota.ca

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