A hybrid that′s more than promised.

It′s easy to understand why Consumer Reports magazine selected the Highlander Hybrid as SUV of the year. It′s moderately luxurious, fun to drive, and easy on the fuel budget.

As far as its design is concerned, this SUV is simple and conservative – not much different from others of the genre. What sets it apart is what′s under the hood.

Powered by Toyota′s Synergy Drive System, a combination V6 3.3 liter gasoline engine and electric motors/generators, linked to a continuously variable transmission, the Highlander has impressive power. As one might expect, it′s not as quick off the line as many gasoline powered vehicles, but, according to manufacturer specifications, it accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in slightly more than 7 seconds. Once moving, the Highlander smoothly reaches cruising speed transitioning seamlessly between the gasoline and electric-assist system. While there′s nothing remarkable about its handling, the SUV is agile in crowed parking lots and tight curves.

Although it′s equipped with 4-wheel drive, this model is not designed for off road driving. Four-wheel independent suspension and front and rear stabilizing bars provide a smooth ride. As the first seven seat hybrid SUV, the Highlander sports comfortable fabric trimmed seats. Two riders can comfortably occupy the deep 2nd row 40/60 split seat, but there is a lap/shoulder belt for a third smaller passenger in the middle position. Two more can ride in the somewhat difficult to access third row fold down seats.

Cargo space is limited when all rows of seats are in use, but capacity, not absorbed by the electric power supply, is more than adequate when the second and third rows are folded down.

The driver position instrument cluster, indicating speed, rpm and power source, is well-designed and easy to read. The center-dash mounted accessories; climate control, radio and CD player are within close reach and simple to manage. A DVD touch-screen navigation system is one of the few options available in this already “fully loaded” vehicle.

In addition to the now standard lap-shoulder belts in all positions, the Highlander is equipped with driver and front passenger airbags and seat-mounted side airbags. Roll-sensing side curtain airbags provide added protection to front and second row passengers. The long list of safety features is highlighted by the collision sensors which automatically shut down the high voltage battery in the event of a crash.

Overall, the Highlander Hybrid is an exceptional entry in the hybrid category that′s sure to turn heads.