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I'm lukewarm on the looks of the Toyota Highlander. Maybe that's because I'm still seeing so many pre-2009 models on the road. It took me a bit to get over reviewing this hulking behemoth when it kept coming up as a good vehicle for families with three or more children. But, let's face it... when you have two car seats, or three teenagers, the back seat of most five-seaters just isn't going to cut it.
After checking out the 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid on The Car Connection, I'm pleasantly surprised. Toyota redesigned the Highlander in 2008, so the 2009 model has a much less bulky design. It still gets a rating of 7 for Style at www.thecarconnection.com, but the 2009 model is a huge gain over 2008 and previous. Pair that styling improvement with a rating of 9 in safety, and you have my attention.
Rex Roy points out something very important with hybrid models. I can't say it better than Roy, so here's how he puts it:
So-called full hybrids that can actually be propelled from a stop on electric power alone—versus so-called mild hybrids that just shut off the gas engine when the vehicle isn't moving—are rarer still. The much-improved 2009 Toyota HighlanderHybrid is one of these rare full hybrids, which makes it an especially good fit for urban families. The wholesale changes implemented in 2008 carry over into 2009 and help the Highlander Hybrid’s gas-electric drivetrain run better while still achieving excellent mileage.
The important message here is focused on typical family driving in the city and most suburbs. Hybrid powertrains help you save gas when you're driving at lower speeds. They're even more beneficial in stop-and-go traffic, since you reduce the time the gasoline engine is idling. So, for most families who use their vehicle as a glorified taxi, a "strong" hybrid is perfectly designed to provide motion without the overkill of a powerful gasoline engine. The Highlander boasts 27 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway. See what I'm talking about?
Many reviewers of the Toyota Highlander, especially the hybrid model, point out that the suspension is soft, and it's not an exciting vehicle to drive. That actually makes me feel better in some ways, since I'm not usually hot rodding it when I have my kids in the car.
If you're considering a Highlander, watch for one more thing: Not all models have the third row. Be sure to test drive this SUV with your family in tow so you can see if all three of your carseat-free children will fit without it, or if the third row will fit those leggy basketball players. I'm not hot on paying up to $41,000 for this vehicle, but it wouldn't stop me if I needed that extra space. (By the way, that extra cost seems to show up with that third row, and not so much the hybrid powertrain.)
I'd love to hear from you... Does your family fit without the third row? If you own a Highlander, do you get the gas mileage benefits claimed by Toyota? Let's hear it!