Road test: Hybrid power shines in Toyota Highlander Hybrid

2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Not all hybrids are created equal — not even all Toyota hybrids — so each one should be judged on its own merits.

While I admire, respect and even marvel at the ingenuity which brought it to life, I can’t  get my heart racing over a Prius sedan. It takes function and form so far past fun and fulfilling that I find it to be, well, dull.  I simply need a little more pepper and a little less pablum in my automotive diet.

Except . . .

Take all of the Prius technological wizardry and modify it for use under the hood of a Toyota Highlander crossover vehicle, and I find myself thinking entirely differently. This is a vehicle that really benefits from a gas/electric powertrain.

Let me explain.

Crossover vehicles are mission-oriented. They are for hauling stuff and carting kids. They are for getting around in bad weather. They are great for tailgating and summer vacations. In essence, they are modern-day station wagons with lots of cargo space and command-view seating.

You own a crossover, you are not thinking about zero to sixty, or clipping apexes, or setting point-to-point personal bests.

Unlike a car, it is big, boxy and a bit top heavy, so you slow down around the corners, give the vehicle in front a little extra space in case a sudden stop is necessary and navigate carefully in mall parking lots.

The tradeoff is practicality for pleasure and, for families in particular, that’s just fine.

But gasoline-powered crossovers come with one big downer of their own, and that’s where the Highlander hybrid comes in. The EPA-estimated overall fuel mileage for the 2011 gas/eletric Highlander is 28 miles per gallon, compared with the low 20s or less for its thirsty counterparts.

Yes, you critics will counter,  but the Highlander hybrid costs $5,500 to $7,500 more than a comparably equipped gas burner, and that will buy a whole lot of gasoline.

True, but that difference can be erased by someone who drives a whole lot or is willing to make a long-term commitment. Since the attributes of crossovers don’t change much from model to model, you can keep on motoring in the same vehicle for many years and watch your shrunken fuel bill even out your overall cost.

Which brings us back to the 2011 Highlander hybrid. It performs a bit better than its predecessor, but it doesn’t really drive or ride much differently. Take a spin blindfolded — a really bad idea, by the way — and you probably wouldn’t be able to tell one from the other.