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Exterior Design: ****

While the Highlander's basic sheet metal is inoffensiveness incarnate, its design serves-up a few welcome touches to save viewers from aesthetic narcolepsy: sharp creases over the wheel arches, a nicely resolved rear three-quarter window and a generally sure-footed stance. Butch nose or no, this is an SUV from The Suburban School of Civilized Schlepping.

Ergonomics: ****

The wonderful thing about relatively inexpensive vehicles is that you miss-out on all that bewildering multi-functionality. The Highlander Hybrid s cabin is a fine place to work, with terrific seats and excellent visibility. The plastics are plenty cheap (the metal effect plastic is especially hideous) but perfectly acceptable in the noble quest for PC heaven.

Acceleration: ****

Now that hybrids use battery power to supplement petrol-powered torque, enthusiasts have lost their last reason not to come on board. From a standing start, the Highlander Hybrid charges [literally] towards the horizon, and then steams [virtually] into triple digits with no appreciable diminution of accelerative intent. The 208hp V6 and 68hp Duracell (just kidding) are a hi-tech dream team.

Braking: ****

Previously, hybrid brakes were a graunching, snatching nightmare; providing less feel than a Novocained bicuspid. Although the Highlander Hybrid's regenerative stoppers are a computerized technofeast— complete with anti-lock, ABS, brake force distribution and links to stability control programs— they're quiet, progressive and ergonomic. It's one impressive retard.

Ride: ***

The Highlander typifies the current tendency for ersatz SUV makers to tie-down their products to an inch of their lives, to avoid rolling with the homies. Factor in the fairly stiff energy-saving tires and you've got a crashy slow-speed ride over broken surfaces— that resolves nicely at speed.

Handling: ****

A heavy, understeer-biased chassis and those Goodyear Integrity tires do sporting drivers no favors— except to slow them down to sensible speeds. Driven leisurely, even a curve-addicted curmudgeon has no reason to complain.

Gearbox: *****

An electronically controlled continuously variable (CVT) autobox swaps cogs so seamless you'll never notice. It's a truly remarkable achievement, considering all that switching between energy sources.

Audio/Video: ***

Nothing special to report here. Option package No.1 raises the game to a JBL head unit with eight speakers, but the fact that it comes with a cassette slot is a big hint that you're better off spending the readies at your local retrofitter (if you can be bothered).

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Toys: ****

Bragging rights demand stumping-up the extra loot for the Highlander Hybrid Limited with its touch screen DVD nav. Tree huggers will never tire of the live animation showing the change in motive power (the rest will). Otherwise, this ain't no party, this ain't no Lexus, this ain't no foolin' around.

Trunk: *****

Hell no, we won't third row. Avoiding the sardine configuration leaves a perfectly serviceable five-seater, with plenty of fold flat space for all that lifestyle gear we hear so much about (but normally replace with grocery bags and cedar mulch). You ll need a cargo net ($49) and Xtreme cargo mat ($79). Mean bastards.

Overall rating: ****

Eat, drink and be merry, for tommorrow, we summarize. [by Robert Farago]

Related:
Jalopnik Reviews: Toyota Highlander Hybrid, Part 1, Part 3 [internal]