The Car:  2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

First Impressions: With the popularity of Toyota’s Prius Hybrid, we were excited to try out the family-friendlier hybrid from Toyota, the Highlander. The hybrid engine is a real attractive option for families these days, with gas prices going up over $4 a gallon. While some claim the savings at the pump and increased fuel economy are a mere "feel good" factor, we’ve found that spending $80 on a tank of gas does not make us feel good. In fact it makes us feel bad, so bring on the SUV that makes us feel good!

Price Point: $34 – $40,000

Mileage:  28/25 – The hybrid model of the Highlander boasts the best mileage of any CUV currently on the market

Best for Families:  With three kids or less. Although there is ample access to the third row seating, there is very little storage when the third row seating is in use, making this a better full time vehicle for families who will only want to use the third row as an option for carpooling and occasional trips, not fulltime.

The Interior: Updated design gives the 2008 Highlander a bit more style and considerably more space than previous models. The trim is attractive and high quality, giving the vehicle a solid and reliable feel.

From the Driver’s Seat: The Highlander is fast to accelerate and has no problems with passing. The vehicle is responsible and surprisingly agile for its size. A standard backup camera, particularly useful for families with small children, gives drivers confidence and added safety.

Along for the Ride: Passengers enjoy a smooth ride and good visibility. When you have larger groups everyone will appreciate the second row 40-20-40 seating. This allows you to remove the center portion of the second row to create two captains seats with a center passageway similar to a minivian. This makes the third row far more accessible than standard folding benches. The third row offers seating that is large enough for adults to sit on short trips. It might get cramped back there for longer rides. This vehicle has ample room for carseats in the second row (without impinging on front seat driver or passenger) and legroom for second row passengers.

Family Friendly Facts

  • Seats: Seven, with easy access to the third row via a flip down or removable center seat in the second row.
  • Cupholders: More than the average family could fill even when drinking beverages two fisted
  • Latch seats & positions: 2 in the second row behind the driver and passenger
  • Rear/Trunk Storage – holds a load of groceries along with a full size stroller when the third row is folded down, but you will have to choose between a couple of bags or an umbrella stroller with the third row in use.
  • Entertainment Options – Sirius Satellite Radio, MP3 player compatibility, Multi CD Disk Changer/Player and available DVD entertainment with headphones
  • Other Family Friendly Features: Available DVD Navigation system, standard backup cam, remote rear liftgate, hatch glass opens independently, heated seats, very easy to fold/unfold second row seats.

Overall Impressions

The Highlander is a great car for families of 4, maybe 5, and is nicely designed with lots of family-friendly touches.  The hybrid engine is a plus for those who want better gas mileage economy.  The only negative for the Highlander Hybrid is the sticker shock of our test model, coming in at over $48,000 fully optioned out.  We like the car, we like to save gas, but the final price may give you hesitation.

Pleasantly Surprised:  We were prepared to lose a little oomph to save a little mileage but we were surprised that this vehicle felt so powerful, no oomph sacrificed here. The vehicle feels well kitted out and luxurious, particularly the model we tested which was loaded with all the options.

Room for improvement:

  • Third row seat folds as one unit – no way to fold half down so it’s all or nothing in the third row. Considering the lack of rear storage when the third row is in use, halfsies would have been nice.
  • The Highlander’s rear pillars create rear blind spots that takes some getting used to.  It took a bit of practice and mirror adjusting to feel comfortable about making lane changes.
  • Steering wheel controls feels cluttered with all the buttons for stereo, temperature, auto drive.  It’s not intuitive and will take a while to get used to.

Might cause a meltdown:

  • Navigation and radio controls are not intuitive. You will need to study the manual. There will be a test. Probably when you are driving down the highway with two kids screaming.
  • Price tag – our review model was fully loaded and stickered over $48,000.  That’s a bit steep for the average family but it was a fully loaded model
  • No memory seat settings for different drivers. at this price, it should be standard.

Links & Specifications:
Roadfly Video Review – 2008 Toyota Highlander
Highlander Hybrid Review at MotherProof
2008 Highlander Hybrid Review at Edmunds
Highlander @ Toyota (official site)