Special Coverage

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CHICAGO – Gaining 4 ins. (10 cm) in length and 3 ins. (7.6 cm) in width and wheelbase, the ’08 Toyota Highlander debuting at the auto show here somewhat dwarfs its predecessor.

However, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. says the cross/utility vehicle’s overall “fuel efficiency will be virtually unchanged.”

“The ’08 Highlander takes the car-based SUV concept to a new level,” Don Esmond, senior vice president-automotive operations, says in a statement. “I say that with conviction, because it’s a category we invented.”

The new Highlander, including its hybrid-electric vehicle variant, now rides on the new platform that underpins Toyota’s Camry midsize car and Avalon large sedan.

The three Highlander trims, Base, Sport and Limited, also get the Camry and Avalon’s 3.5L V-6 engine, making 270 hp and 294 lb.-ft. (399 Nm) of torque in the Highlander. It is mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission. The current-generation Highlander’s 3.3L V-6 generates 215 hp and 222 lb.-ft. (301 Nm) of torque.

The Highlander Hybrid, meanwhile, keeps its 3.3L V-6, but now it churns out a net 270 hp, up slightly from 268 hp in the current model.

Despite the modest power bump, Toyota says the hybrid’s fuel economy remains at 31/27 mpg city/highway (7.6-8.7 L/100 km).

Toyota, no doubt, increased Highlander’s dimensions to better distinguish it from the newer, larger RAV4 CUV, which went on sale in fall 2005.

The Highlander now has a 109.8-in. (279-cm) wheelbase and is 188.4 ins. (479-cm) long, compared with the RAV4’s dimensions of 104.7 ins. (266 cm) and 181.1 ins. (460 cm), respectively.

The increased size allowed designers to maximize interior functionality, Toyota says. For instance, the Highlander’s second-row seats are captain’s chairs with armrests, with a “center stow” seat hidden in the front center console. When utilized, it provides bench seating in the second row to accommodate three passengers, Toyota says.

A second-row center console can be snapped in place when the center stow seat is not in use, or the area can be left open to allow occupants easier access to the Highlander’s third row.

The CUV gets a standard fold-flat third-row bench seat with foldable headrests, as well as Smart Start and Entry for Highlander Limited and Hybrid.

Options for the new Highlander include a key-fob-operated power backdoor, navigation system with 8-in. (20 cm) screen, rear-seat entertainment system with 9-in. (23 cm) screen and 3-zone air conditioning. A class-leading 5,000-lb. (2,268-kg) tow package also is available, the auto maker says.

Toyota has increased the number of standard safety features available on the Highlander, most notably by having a driver’s knee airbag and roll-sensing side curtain airbags covering all three rows.

All Highlanders receive Toyota’s Star safety system, with stability control, antilock brakes and traction control, but added for all Highlanders except the Base trim is a standalone backup camera with a multi-information screen that is separate from the navigation system.

The Highlander Hybrid receives Toyota’s Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system.

VDIM combines full-time 4-wheel drive with intelligence, electronic brake and throttle control and electronically controlled active steering.

The Highlander also becomes the first Toyota to have active headrests in combination with a new hood and fender system that will crumple if a pedestrian is hit.

Toyota says the design of the new CUV reflects a move away from traditional SUV styling, “with a statement of strength instead of ruggedness.”

Strength is depicted via muscular contours, Toyota says of the ’08 Highlander, crafted at Toyota’s Calty Design Research center in Newport Beach, CA. Other styling cues include “crisp lines,” and “a wide, stable stance,” Toyota says.

The new ’08 Highlander goes on sale in the U.S. in July, while the Highlander Hybrid hits dealers in September.

Highlander sales rose 18% last month, to 10,322 units, Ward’s data shows. However, Highlander Hybrid demand fell 23.2% from January 2006, to 1,810 units.