What was tested? 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited ($39,950).
Options: Navigation system/audio upgrade ($2,655), floor mats ($299), remote security system ($275). Price as tested (including $735 delivery fee): $43,914.
GATLINBURG, Tenn. -- I took my family for a quick trip to the Great Smoky Mountains, and I learned three things along the way.
One, children sleep much better after you take them to a tennis court and tell them to run around in circles for half an hour.
Two, Pigeon Forge, Tenn., is the tackiest town in America. It's like a country-and-western Vegas, or perhaps a Disneyland for rednecks. It even has a "strip" with bright neon hillbillies and big, blindingly bright video screens showing country line dancers. Driving through at night nearly gave me a seizure.
And three, everyone in America is now driving a hybrid.
Several years ago when I drove a hybrid vehicle for the first time -- a Honda Civic Hybrid if I remember right -- it was a true novelty. I'd never seen one before. They sold in such small numbers that you were more likely to see a Lamborghini or Ferrari sitting next to you than a hybrid car.
I took a Toyota Highlander Hybrid on my trip to the Smokies and expected it to be a strange curiosity in the deep South. This is a place where the most popular vehicles are pickups and SUVs that drink gas like it comes from kegs at a frat party, so I didn't expect to see many other hybrids along the way.
But I was wrong.
he hybrid version gets 27 miles per gallon in the city, compared with only 17 for its gas-powered equivalent.
When we stopped for lunch at the Cracker Barrel, we parked next to a Toyota Prius. When we did some Christmas shopping that night, we walked back to the Highlander to see a Saturn Vue Hybrid parked beside it. And when we went on a drive through the mountains, we saw hybrids sitting at virtually every scenic overlook. There were more hybrids than insects.
Of course, people who love nature are more likely to spend time near the mountains, and those same people probably want to express their love for nature through America's most time-honored tradition of activism: conspicuous consumption.
If you want to see where people's priorities are, look at what logos they're displaying. If their car wears a huge, chrome "HYBRID" badge plastered across the side, you immediately know what their priorities are and, more than likely, who they voted for in the last presidential election. It's much more effective than a bumper sticker.
To a lesser extent, hybrids are also about practicality.
The Highlander Hybrid is a great example. It has all the great attributes of the regular Highlander -- good road manners, a quiet ride and family-friendly cabin -- but with better gas mileage. The hybrid version gets 27 miles per gallon in the city, compared with only 17 for its gas-powered equivalent.
It also gets the same improvements as the all-new Highlander for 2008, including being significantly bigger and more powerful than the old model. It also has a new, more streamlined look and a wonderfully flexible seating layout.
On the downside, it still drives like a Toyota -- automotive Lunesta. This is especially noticeable at a time when other manufacturers are trying to give their SUVs a more engaging driving feel, like Mazda's CX-7 and Ford's Edge.
The Highlander Hybrid starts at $33,700, which is a hefty $6,400 more than the cheapest gas-only Highlander. Yes, it comes with more standard equipment than the base model, but it's still disappointing to see the gas-saving hybrid technology can't be priced to make it accessible to more buyers.
Still, I bet Toyota won't have any trouble selling out of hybrid Highlanders. Judging from the roads around the Smokies, they may already have.
The Highlander Hybrid starts at $33,700, which is a hefty $6,400 more than the cheapest gas-only Highlander.
Pros: It saves at the gas pump, but -- even better -- comes with serious environmental cred. It's an SUV even Greenpeace can love.
Cons: It has a dull driving feel, and it costs a hefty $6,400 more than the base Highlander.