Hybrids are all about fuel economy, right? In the minds of Joe and Jane Consumer, most would agree that hybrid vehicles get better mpg than their conventionally-powered counterparts.
When Toyota first introduced their Highlander Hybrid as a 2006 model, its EPA estimated mpg of 27 city/31 mpg highway was better than most other contemporary mid-size SUVs. For example, the 2006 Chevrolet Equinox with its standard 3.4-liter V-6 achieved only 19 mpg city, 24 mpg highway.
Facts like these supported the understood paradigm.
But things have changed, and changed quickly.
Certainly, the way the EPA measures fuel economy is different. That 2006 Equinox would achieve only 17 city/22 highway using today’s stricter standards. The 2006 Highlander Hybrid would be down to 28 city/25 highway. Regardless of measurement protocols, the Toyota still had a significant advantage over the gas-only Chevy.
However, the focus of this story is on a bigger issue. Given today’s smaller and more powerful internal combustion engines, the hybrid advantage is not always what it once was. As proof, consider the 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid and the all-new 2010 Chevrolet Equinox. (For those interested in the latest Toyota models, the 2010 Highlander Hybrid is virtually identical to the 2009 edition.)
2009 Toyota Highlander
Toyota totally redesigned its Highlander for the 2008 model year. Looked at through today’s more minimalist prism, Toyota making the Highlander larger and dropping its base four-cylinder engine seems ill timed. But the shift made sense back then given the growth of the Toyota RAV4. As the Rav4 grew, it pushed the new Highlander up a segment to compete against the likes of the Honda Pilot and some other mid and large SUVs that are no longer with us, including the Chevy Trailblazer and Dodge Durango.
At the Highlander’s 2008 press introduction, Toyota told us that 300 pounds of added mass came with the crossover’s enlarged size. Such a burden would be too much for a four-cylinder given the engineering team’s performance goals. So for 2008, the Highlander was only available as a V-6 or as a V-6 hybrid. Both V-6 powertrains gave the crossover energetic acceleration … so much so that journalists and consumers wondered loudly about there being a rational argument for a less powerful and more efficient engine becoming available.
Toyota reacted quickly to the absence of a four-piston mill, and for the 2009 model year added their corporate 2.7-liter I-4. Its mileage of 20 mpg city and 27 mpg highway comes close to matching the V-6 Hybrid model, which nets 27 mpg city, 25 mpg highway.
See where this story is heading?
Before we get to the final point on hybrids vs. conventionally-powered vehicles, let’s look more closely at the 2009 Highlander Hybrid.
Its exterior style is a pleasing vanilla flavor, but you’ll even more quickly forget about it once inside. Efficient interior packaging yields a roomy space that provides exceptional long-distance comfort for those in the first two rows. Reclining second-row chairs combined with low levels of wind and road noise let passengers arrive at the end of a day’s drive with almost no road fatigue.
Handsome wood-grained trim of the Limited model we drove stands out from an otherwise monotone interior. Scores for fit, finish, and function are all high. The only major fault is the third row two-passenger bench. It’s cramped and best forgotten about except when a pair of primordial dwarfs happen to be traveling with your party of five regular-sized people.
Driving The Highlander Hybrid
Performance from the hybrid’s 3.3-liter V-6 hybrid powertrain stands out for commendation. With a combined horsepower rating of 270, the figure doesn’t do the Highlander justice. The hybrid system’s electric motors (in the transmission and rear differential) add considerable torque to the equation, so instant acceleration comes easily. This crossover feels fast. Maintaining an 80 mph interstate cruise is likewise a cakewalk.
At these speeds, the Highlander’s soft ride coddles passengers in the way only luxury cars used to. Because the transmission doesn’t use conventional fixed gears, the sense of smoothness is enhanced. Calling for extra power doesn’t instigate a jarring downshift. The V-6 engine in the Highlander Hybrid simply revs faster to provide more power.
In a recent 1,100 mile trip with a good mix of interstate and city driving, overall mileage was 24.4 mpg. It was this figure that got us thinking…
This crossover’s standard engine is now a four-cylinder displacing 2.4 liters. It features a new cylinder head (among other components) that is fitted with direct injection, a fuel delivery system where the fuel injector is actually in the combustion chamber instead of being in a less efficient location somewhere upstream of the intake valve.
Fuel mileage for is 22 mpg city and an impressive 32 mpg highway for a front-wheel-drive version. Stepping up to AWD, mileage drops to 20 mpg city, 29 mpg highway — still good for a comfortably-sized crossover. This is a 25-percent improvement over the base pushrod 3.4-liter V-6 from 2009 that produced nearly the same power (185 horsepower). The new 2.4-liter produces 182 horsepower at a high 6700 rpm.
The four-cylinder tends to upshift early for good fuel economy, but the engine has enough torque and makes good use of the partnered six-speed automatic transmission. Chevy claims that 0-60 mph comes in about nine seconds. After 150 miles, the number seems reasonable.
Importantly for this comparison, the 2010 Equinox (front-wheel drive) delivers the exact same combined EPA mileage as the 2009 Highlander Hybrid, 26 mpg.
A new paradigm has arrived. Hybrids don’t always get the best fuel economy.
While we haven’t accumulated huge miles on the new Equinox, we still believe the new Chevy is up to taking on the mid-size crossover leaders. And not just because of its economy.
In terms of exterior styling, the Equinox looks fresh but non-controversial. Its front end accepts the Chevrolet grill pretty well. Inside, the design is more dramatic. The main instruments have a touch of retro, but the rest of the cockpit is fully modern. The dash slopes away from the passengers, adding to the roomy feel.
Rear-seat room is considerable, and in some dimensions, larger than the Highlander. The Toyota is a wider vehicle, so there is more hip and shoulder room, but the Chevy offers more rear-seat legroom. The three-across rear seat moves fore and aft eight inches, and the seatback reclines. We also liked the optional headrest-mounted DVD system better than the optional overhead DVD-player fitted to our Highlander.
Driving The Equinox
One issue with four-cylinder vehicles is that they are often less refined feeling than vehicles powered by larger V-6 and V-8 engines. Chevy knew this going in, and worked hard to give their 2.4-liter Equinox a polished character.
Clever tuning of the 2.4-liter and an active interior noise-cancellation system help make the smaller engine feel exceptionally refined. The noise cancellation system works similarly to noise cancellation headphones, and helps eliminate sounds that tend to make four-cylinders engines feel cheap and coarse (if you’re a sound engineer, the sound range is 33-100 hertz). Additionally, door openings with triple seals and glass with integral sound damping further quiet things down inside, helping create a driving experience that feels more Cadillac-like than bargain-basement.
Significant chassis upgrades make the 2010 Chevrolet Equinox handle better than any previous model. Engineers added body-stiffening structure and used more premium bushings in key locations. It rides smoothly while still tracking around corners directly. The steering on four-cylinder models is electrically boosted, and unlike most electrically assisted systems, this one has great feel, in fact, better than some hydraulically assisted systems.
Highlander Hybrid vs. Equinox
The big picture of this comparison centers on miles per gallon. Looking at this measure, there is no compelling reason to by the Highlander Hybrid. According to the EPA estimates, it’s a dead heat.
So beyond economy, what should one consider? Frankly, it’s hard to knock the Highlander Hybrid as a crossover. Compared to new Equinox, it is a larger vehicle with more interior room and the seats (on paper) to carry seven. On the other hand, Chevrolet optimized the footprint of their new Equinox for five passengers, so it’s smaller but still right-sized.
Back to back drives will find the Highlander faster and smoother, but the Equinox the more enjoyable in terms of handling. The Chevy’s better steering feel helped us make this decision. The Toyota tends to be lifeless and vague on center.
The last consideration is price. Here, the simpler Chevy beats the more complex Toyota by thousands.