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CHICAGO – The new ’08 Highlander Hybrid cross/utility vehicle will be able to run solely on its electric battery.

However, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. doesn’t see the feature as being a sales booster.

“I think it’s one of those features that on the showroom floor is interesting to people,” Jim Farley, vice president-marketing, tells reporters following the Highlander press conference at the auto show here.

“Will it be a reason for someone to buy this vehicle? I don’t think so. Will it be another reason to feel comfortable with buying a hybrid? Yes.”

A Toyota spokesman says the range in EV mode depends solely on the charge in the battery. A best-case scenario would be almost five miles (8 km), at speeds of about 25 mph (40 km/h).

Don Esmond, senior vice president-automobile operations, says Toyota expects annual Highlander sales to remain in the 120,000-130,000-unit range in the U.S.

Ward’s data shows Toyota sold 129,794 Highlanders last year in the U.S., a 5.5% drop from 2005 sales. Highlander Hybrid sales, however, rose 75.4% to 31,485 units in 2006, its first full year on the market.

The ’08 Highlander is available with the same 3.5L V-6 engine found in the Camry and Avalon sedans, while the Highlander Hybrid retains its 3.3L V-6 mill.

Farley says Toyota is taking a wait-and-see approach on whether to offer a 4-cyl. engine in the Highlander. The current base model has a 2.4L 4-cyl. engine.

Toyota claims fuel economy for the hybrid-electric vehicle is “virtually unchanged” despite the increased dimensions of the ’08 Highlander vs. the outgoing model.

However, the spokesman says the fuel economy figures cited: 31/27 mpg city/highway (7.6-8.7 L/100 km), are according to the ’07 model year U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.

Farley doesn’t expect Toyota to do a dedicated advertising campaign for the Highlander Hybrid as its plans to do for the Prius HEV, but says the larger CUV will be “the poster child” for hybrids within the Toyota lineup.

The new ’08 Highlander goes on sale in early July in the U.S., with the HEV version to follow two months later.

Esmond promises “competitive pricing” on the ’08 Highlander, refusing to say whether there will be a price increase for the new model.

The ’07 Highlander ranges from $24,880 for a base model with a 4-cyl. engine to $36,550 for a high-end HEV.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com