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Brave New Hybrid World

By Hannah Wallace December 31, 2005

When Hurricane Charley roared up Charlotte Harbor in August 2004, it flattened buildings, trees and gas station signs.

Some stations picked up quickly, made repairs and reopened. But one station commuters passed daily for more than a year had its two-story sign leaning at the same angle Charley left it. Most of the price numbers were blown away. Only by glancing under the angled sign could a person read $1.82.

The station reopened last fall with a new sign. The numbers change almost daily; a little over a year later they now read $3.09.

The world is changing in ways not enough people understand. The oil supply is, according to experts, "past peak" for the entire planet. We have used up half of all the oil nature ever provided. Supply will never meet demand again. We're on the downside of a slippery mountain and ahead we face increasing fuel costs and supply shortages. Most frightening, we have not developed alternatives to a future without fossil fuel.

Some people saw this coming. Enough were buying "green" vehicles last year to make the hybrid Toyota Prius the most in-demand car. Still, many people shrugged and told television cameras they needed the utility and family capacity that only a sport utility could provide. And those SUVs, classified as trucks by the federal government, aren't required to meet fuel efficiency standards imposed on cars. They have been, and remain, among the most offensive gas-guzzlers.

Until this year.

This year, the most in-demand vehicle is a sport utility. It's the hybrid Toyota Highlander, an SUV as unlike a Cadillac Escalade or Hummer as an Oz munchkin is to a sumo wrestler.

This three-row, seven-passenger, mid-size SUV gets 33 miles per gallon around town, 28 in steady highway driving. How can that be? Well, around town the electric motor does some of the driving without using any gasoline. Pull up to a red stoplight and the gasoline engine shuts down, in fact.

It's a bit disconcerting that turning the ignition key first thing in the morning results in no sound of an engine roaring to life. That switch simply activates the electric motor, which powers the Highlander for the first few feet forward or backward. After that, the gasoline engine kicks in.

Acceleration is remarkably robust, with 268 horsepower available from a stop or when passing. This Highlander is every bit as stout as any other sport utility, so you'll make no compromise in performance or handling by driving an SUV that easily doubles the real-world fuel inefficiency of its breed. Zero to 60 is 7.3 seconds. That's faster than the racing Porsche Spyder in which actor James Dean died.

One reason the acceleration is decent is that the gasoline engine is a 3.3-liter V6. It and the electric motor feed power through a continually variable automatic transmission for seamless shifts and smooth takeoffs. Together, they do better than many four-cylinder gasoline cars.

In other considerations, the hybrid Highlander is like any non-hybrid model. Our tester was front-wheel drive, with both stability control and traction control. It has anti-lock brakes with sophisticated brake assist, distributing braking force to individual wheels as needed. A four-wheel drive model is also available. Both the driver and front passenger have airbags front and side, while the second-row passengers are protected by a side head-curtain bag system.

The interior of the 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid can be configured any number of ways, thanks to folding-reclining seats. For most uses, a third row of seats will remain folded flat to create a cargo bay large enough to hold a week's groceries. The second row can be dropped to create an even bigger cargo area.

No compromises have been made on comfort in this desirable gas sipper. Remote keyless entry is standard. So is a roof rack, air conditioner, stereo system with CD player, and power windows and door locks. Note that the air conditioner was specially developed by Toyota not to use the gasoline motor for power. Every other automotive air conditioner is run by a fan belt linked to the motor; this one is electric, so it does not shut down at stoplights when the gas engine turns off to conserve fuel. The water pump has electric power, too.

Our tester had only one option (we can live without fog lights) and began at a sticker price of $33,030. When all the processing fees, etc., were added, this Hybrid Highlander totaled $35,325. A navigation system is optional, and should be purchased.

If you're in the market for a sport utility-and that market has collapsed as if hit by an earthquake-then look on the window sticker for "Estimated Annual Fuel Cost." Don't be surprised to see a figure of $1,700 or more. On the Highlander sticker, you'll read $899.

A few years ago, I could not recommend the Highlander at any price. It had the worst "booming" interior found in any vehicle. Lowering even one window, front or back, at any speed above 45 mph resulted in a booming sound so severe it hurt the ears. Entire Web sites were devoted to demanding that Toyota refund money to anyone who bought a Highlander. Toyota was profoundly embarrassed.

You cannot live with that booming noise. Thankfully, with the 2006 Hybrid Highlander, you don't have to. Some design tweak fixed the problem, which still plagues square-sided sport utilities; be sure to test for this if you intend to buy a particular model.

In every way, this sport utility has gone from worst to first. With no end of soaring gasoline prices in sight, this Highlander will help all of us transition to a future where cheap oil is a fond memory. That future has already begun.

Robert C. Bowden produces The Car Place, a Forbes Best of the Web selection, and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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