Utility Without the Guilt Hybrid technology comes to the family SUV. The 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is rated 31 city/27 highway and it seats seven. By Erin Riches Date Posted 05-09-2005 Driving an SUV used to be a way to look cool. And it still is cool — as long as it's one of these three: the 2005 Jeep Liberty CRD, the 2006 Lexus RX 400h or the 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. What's special about them? They get good fuel economy. So good that you can break up your co-workers' coffee bar discussions about "guess what my two-year-old said…" with "you're not going to believe this, but my new pet SUV is getting 25 mpg." But there's more to it than improving your fuel economy. There's that wonderful feeling of knowing you've chosen the greenest transportation around without giving up an ounce of utility. That's what it's like to drive a hybrid SUV. The Jeep Liberty diesel might not qualify you for the same moral high ground, but then, you don't pay as much to get into one. Since we're already putting a hybrid Ford Escape through a long-term test, we gathered the other green SUVs to see if their performance and fuel economy measure up to the feel-good marketing behind them. So for 1,000 miles, we slogged through city gridlock, cruised down wide-open interstates and pushed them a little on back roads, feverishly keeping track of every fill-up. Then, we went to the test track to see what kind of acceleration times we could squeeze out of all that technology. Finally, we asked ourselves, "Would I pay more now for an SUV that gives me peace of mind later?" More often than not, the answer was yes. 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid The seven-passenger Highlander Hybrid doesn't force you to make uncomfy compromises to stand up for the environment. It's just like a regular Highlander right down to its no-fuss handling, simple cabin design and 81 cubic feet of cargo capacity. But it is more powerful. And it does get better fuel economy. To make the hybrid version, Toyota started with the 3.3-liter V6 in the standard Highlander, recalibrated it for duty in a hybrid and installed three electric motors (two on front-drive models). One of the motors is responsible for starting the gas engine and recharging the 288-volt battery pack. Another teams up with the V6 to drive the front wheels via a continuously variable transmission. The third motor, present only on all-wheel-drive models, can juice the rear wheels when extra power or traction is needed. One gas engine and three electric motors may sound like an overly complex setup even for a hybrid SUV, but from the driver seat, it's all seamless. Well, for the most part. There's no "start" button as in the Prius, so first-time Highlander Hybrid drivers experience a split-second of doubt when they twist the key in the ignition and hear nothing. Ease into the accelerator and you'll hear only the peaceful hum of an electric motor until you hit 25 mph or blast the A/C. But there's real power here when you need it. The hybrid drivetrain turns out 268 horsepower to the regular Highlander's 230. Toyota doesn't release a cumulative torque figure for its hybrids, but with the electric motors specializing in low-end pull and the gas engine hitting its stride in the midrange, acceleration is swift at any speed. During track-testing, the Highlander Hybrid ran a 7.2-second 0-60, which makes it one of the fastest SUVs in its price range. We weren't delighted with our 23-mpg average, considering that Toyota's hybrid SUV is rated 31 city/27 highway. However, among 7- to 8-passenger SUVs, it really doesn't get any better than that; our long-term Honda Pilot, for example, averaged just 18 mpg. Moreover, whenever we got stuck in traffic, the fuel economy monitor in the Highlander let us know it was pulling down 30 mpg, no problem. Toyota is offering the Highlander Hybrid in both base and Limited trims, with either front- or all-wheel drive. However you decide to equip yours, you'll get more features than you would on the regular Highlander. Our Limited tester, for instance, came standard with leather and side airbags. Even when you adjust for these extras, though, you're still paying about $3 grand more for the hybrid technology. You can take a $2,000 federal tax credit if you buy your Highlander Hybrid in the 2005 calendar year; the incentive drops to $500 in 2006. Apart from the focus on fuel economy, the Highlander remains a likable SUV six years into its life cycle. It's still no athlete when the road turns twisty, but its smooth ride and comfortable seating will win over families. Its third-row seat is more of an afterthought than it is functional, but this is still the only hybrid that seats seven. 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited 4dr SUV AWD (3.3L 6cyl gas/electric hybrid CVT) Ups: Swift acceleration, smooth ride, easy to maneuver in the city, comfortable cabin with simple controls and solid materials. Downs: Poor access to third-row seat, no separate rear A/C, overly soft reflexes in the corners, engine can be noisy. The Bottom Line: The most practical way for families of five to get their hybrid fix. Base MSRP of Test Vehicle: $39,855 (including destination charge) Options on Test Vehicle: Navigation System ($2,000). MSRP of Test Vehicle: $41,855 (including destination charge) 2006 Lexus RX 400h Toyota is on a mission. The world's largest car company wants to show the world hybrids perform in just about any vehicle segment and the public will jump at the chance to own them. And what better way to prove this point than to install a hybrid drivetrain in the best-selling Lexus model, the RX 330? The early wait list for the 2006 Lexus RX 400h was so long the company had to set up a dedicated communication system to placate customers with regular updates on their vehicle's progress. It's no surprise hybrid versions of the GS and LS sedans are now in the works. The RX 400h uses the same drivetrain as the Highlander Hybrid, meets California's SULEV classification and is rated 31 city/27 highway. But unlike the Toyota, you can only get the Lexus with all-wheel drive. The RX weighs 100 pounds more than the Highlander, but it tied with the Toyota in the sprint to 60 mph with a time of 7.2 seconds. It actually slipped past the Highlander in the quarter-mile with a 15.3-second run. Out on the road, the RX 400h waltzed up steep highway grades as if it was taking a stroll through the suburbs. It felt considerably faster than the RX 330, a vehicle it outweighs by 300 pounds. Additionally, the RX 400h has tighter suspension tuning than the Highlander Hybrid and this, along with its 18-inch tires, makes for a more engaging drive without compromising the plush ride. But depending on how you drive, more fun can lead to worse fuel economy — we got 22 mpg in the Lexus. Our best tank was 24 mpg. This may disappoint mileage-obsessed readers, but consider that the regular RX 330 averaged just 16 mpg while in our care. Our sole complaint about the RX 400h was the increase of engine noise under hard acceleration compared to the RX 330. What's with the noise? The V6 has more leeway to shoot up to redline when hooked up to the hybrid system. The same thing happens in the Toyota, but it seems more out of character in the Lexus. The Lexus RX 400h commands an $11,000 premium over a base RX 330 but comes with almost every possible feature. Put all of its features on a regular RX and the leap to the hybrid is about $3,000 — barely worth fretting over on a $50K luxury SUV. 2006 Lexus RX 400h 4dr SUV AWD (3.3L 6cyl gas/electric hybrid CVT) Ups: Vigorous acceleration, plush ride quality, competent handling, elegant interior with excellent ergonomics, lots of storage, power liftgate. Downs: Big price tag, engine noise more obtrusive than in RX 330. The Bottom Line: Still elegant and refined, but this RX gives you extra power, better fuel economy and the assurance that you're doing something good for the planet. Base MSRP of Test Vehicle: $49,185 (including destination charge) Options on Test Vehicle: Rear Seat Entertainment System ($1,840), Mark Levinson Sound System ($980), Heated Seats ($540). MSRP of Test Vehicle: $52,545 (including destination charge) 2005 Jeep Liberty CRD We've never done better than 13 mpg in the V6 Jeep Liberty. That isn't just a number that makes you feel bad, it's a number that makes you feel poor, especially when you're driving what's supposed to be a budget SUV. But the Jeep Liberty diesel came through with 21 mpg against a 21 city/26 highway rating. Our CRD tester also recorded the best tank of this group, 25 mpg over 220 miles. Some of our forum members have been disappointed with their early mileage, but our test vehicle came to us with 7,500 miles, needless to say, well past the break-in period. Like most diesels, the Liberty's 2.8-liter turbodiesel inline four-cylinder balances modest horsepower (160) against big torque — 295 pound-feet at just 1,800 rpm. This combination gives the Liberty CRD plenty of grunt at low speeds and surprisingly good passing power on the freeway. In fact, with all the torque, there's very little work for the standard five-speed automatic transmission. Diesels tend to tire at higher engine speeds, and although the Liberty CRD loses some stamina when climbing highway grades, acceleration is still acceptable. Unfortunately, the diesel Jeep is not without a few drawbacks. Even with two fewer cylinders, the drivetrain adds almost 300 pounds of extra curb weight (4,306 pounds total), and seven-tenths of a second to the truck's 0-to-60-mph time, now 10.9 seconds. It also adds about $2 grand to the price tag, though with the added equipment that comes standard on the diesel, the difference is really just $845. Another problem is noise. The hybrids go silent at stoplights, the Liberty chugs and clatters in rhythm with the delivery truck in the next lane. Some call it endearing, others call it irritating. Finally, there's the emissions issue. Diesels emit less carbon dioxide than gasoline engines but release more nitrogen oxide and soot, especially when they run on the high-sulfur diesel fuel sold in the U.S. The availability of lower-sulfur fuel in 2006 will help some, but in order to meet tougher 2007 emissions standards, the Liberty CRD will need a particulate filter and/or an onboard fuel reformer. Already you can't buy one in California, Maine, Massachusetts, New York or Vermont. Soy-based biodiesel fuel is another alternative Jeep is exploring — all Liberty CRDs leave the factory running on a 5-percent biodiesel blend — but the lack of uniform standards for its production impedes widespread use. Emissions aside, it's tough to argue with the jump in fuel economy on the Jeep Liberty diesel, provided you like the rest of the package. This is still the hard-core off-roader of the cute-ute class. That's great and all, but it means lots of body roll and slow steering in trade for rock-crawling capability. 2005 Jeep Liberty Sport 4WD 4dr SUV (2.8L 4cyl Turbodiesel) Ups: Lots of torque at low rpm, way more fuel-efficient than V6 Liberty, fearless off-roader, comfortable seats. Downs: Lots of clatter at idle, not available in California or northeastern states, handles like a truck The Bottom Line: The V6 Liberty sucks down fuel like there's no tomorrow. The diesel Jeep leaves some for the rest of the world at little cost to performance. Base MSRP of Test Vehicle: $24,525 (including destination charge) Options on Test Vehicle: Security Group ($175 — includes security alarm and cargo cover); Deep Tint Sunscreen Glass ($270); Cruise Control ($300); Sunroof ($700). MSRP of Test Vehicle: $25,970 (including destination charge) Do They Pay Off? In the midst of our testing, we made a pleasant discovery: However different these sport-utes might be in personality and price, each one basically drives like a regular SUV. And they do it while providing real-world gains in fuel economy. In fact, depending on how long you plan to keep it, buying a hybrid or diesel SUV could be a good financial move. Based on the mileage we got in the Liberty CRD, we'd come out ahead after a year of ownership. It would take us about five years to break even in the Highlander Hybrid and about six years in the RX 400h. That's a pretty long time if you're planning to lease one, but if you buy one, it's not such a bad deal. Adding in the $2,000 hybrid tax deduction could shave off about a year. We all know that driving a fuel-efficient SUV is a good thing to do for the planet. If you can get the math working in your favor, as well, it can be a good thing for your wallet as well.