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Hybrids/Electric Vehicles Archive

2014-2015 Toyota Highlander & Hybrid Review: Kids, Carseats & Safety

HighlanderHybrids1Starting in 2011, the Toyota Highlander became a pretty nice minivan alternative.  That 2011 refresh added split-folding third row seating, so the flexibility for my family was just enough to tempt me from a decade of driving a minivan.  I liked it enough that I bought one, and over 3 years later, I am not disappointed in the least.  With fuel economy of my hybrid above 35 mpg in warm months and averaging almost 31 mpg overall, I’m still impressed with the previous Highlander in almost every regard.  The only question was what Toyota could possibly do to improve the 2014-2015 Highlander.  Or, as some still feel about the current Sienna minivan, could it actually be worse in terms of seating children than the previous model?

What You Get:

On paper, it looks like a nice improvement.  In terms of safety, it’s one of only a few 3-row SUVs to qualify for BOTH an IIHS 2014 Top Safety Pick+ rating AND a 5-star overall NHTSA safety rating as well.  Plus, it now has a full complement of advanced safety features available, something a few competitors still lack.  Equally important for families, Toyota made it a few inches longer, almost an inch wider and increased the cabin room significantly.  That’s great news for fitting extra cargo behind the third row (below, left), for fitting rear-facing carseats or just for long legs up front.  For example, even a tall driver will have legroom with a Britax Advocate installed behind them, while a very tall rear-facing model like the Graco HeadWise 70 (below, right) leaves enough room upfront for an average adult.

2014HighlanderCargo1 2014HighlanderBritaxAdvocateGracoHeadwise70

A rear-view camera and hands-free bluetooth phone connectivity are now standard on all trims!  Equally important, advanced safety features are now available for the first time.  Blind-spot warning, cross-traffic alert and Toyota Connect (collision notification and emergency assistance) are available standard on Limited models only.  The optional Driver Technology or Platinum package offers forward collision mitigation with autobrake, earning it an “Advanced” level of protection from the IIHS.  These packages also include lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control and automatic high beam adjustments.  The lack of those features were among my main concerns in the previous version and all those I tested worked as expected.  It’s a shame that Toyota didn’t include more of these features standard or at least optional on lower trim levels.

Styling is greatly improved, both inside and out, especially for the Hybrid trim.  Handling seems to be improved a bit, though compared to the numb steering of the previous model, it would be hard to do any worse!  Fuel economy is also improved slightly for non-hybrid models, thanks to a new 6-speed transmission and updated AWD system.  Controls and gauges are well thought and overall the cabin and electronics are improved across the board.

What’s not improved?  Fuel economy in the hybrid model, for one.  It’s actually very slightly lower (27 mpg city vs. 28 mpg city).  This is very regrettable, as there should have been some focus to increase hybrid fuel economy slightly.  Why not have an affordable hybrid trim with a smaller gas engine, elimination of 4WD and further reduce weight by eliminating things like power seats and the spare tire?  The full size spare is replaced by a compact unit, a plus or minus depending on your needs.  Perhaps a tradeoff for improved handling, the new version doesn’t seem quite as quiet or smooth riding as the previous model.  The handy second row stowable middle seat is gone, a notable omission if you opt for the 7-passenger model.  But for those who select the second row bench, there are now more options for 3-across and adjacent carseat installations.

Overall, Toyota did respond to nearly all my complaints with the previous Hybrid model, with one big exception.  For all the improvements, you have to pay over $50,000 to get one.  That’s because for 2014, the Hybrid only comes in Limited trim and you must get the driver’s tech or platinum package to get all the advanced safety features.  Combined with the fact that Limited trims do not offer the 2nd row bench for 8-passenger capability, that means most families won’t even consider the hybrid.  BIG shame on Toyota.

2014HighlanderConsoleOther changes?  The huge front console storage is nice, though it ate up two of my valued cupholders.  I really appreciated the cell phone tray in the dash (photo, right). The folding 2nd row cupholder/tray is great if you opt for the 2nd row captain’s chairs on higher trim levels.  The Navigation and Infotainment system are more intuitive and easier to use than most others I’ve seen in the last year.  Bluetooth phones pair and import contacts easily and stream music with no hassles.  Toyota did a great job on the interior and electronics overall.  The sound quality of the JBL system is just average, though.

Going Green?

We celebrated our 20th anniversary recently.  I planned a spectacular weekend for my wife.  A night out at our favorite restaurant and a stay at our favorite hotel without kids.  Then the surprise, a trip to NYC for a show on broadway and dinner with good friends who celebrated our first anniversary with us many years ago.  It all went smashingly well.

suburbanI hate to even blemish the weekend, but there was a tiny little quirk.  Instead of using our normal limo or taxi service, I opted to impress my bride with an “Eco Friendly” limousine service that I had seen.  After all, we own two hybrids and why not make a tiny effort to avoid burning up our dwindling fossil fuels when possible?  It was only a few dollars more than normal, so no big deal.   I had assumed that like many Chicago and NYC taxis, typical models would be Prius, Camry and Fusion hybrids.   Of our three segments, the first was in a Ford Escape Hybrid.  Certainly no Prius, but perfectly reasonable.  I wasn’t expecting to be driven in a Tesla or something, though that would have been a nice touch!

Well, much to our dismay, the next two trips to and from the airport were not hybrids, electrics, diesels or fuel conserving vehicles of any kind.  Not only that, they were actually among the least fuel efficient passenger vehicles that could have been used to transport two passengers.  For both trips, a dreaded Earth Destroyer was dispatched for our very UN-green airport commutes.  When I asked later, the service said that they keep some of these monster SUVs for larger parties and assured me they were flex fuel models using E85.   I guess they didn’t realize that even if the drivers actually did put E85 in the tanks, the fuel economy is much worse!

Oh well, so much for having “Green” in the name of your limo service!  Next time, I guess we’ll save money and fuel by driving our 50 mpg Prius and paying for parking.  In my defense, it was a big anniversary and we departed and arrived at different airports.  Still, my apologies for the extra CO2 and smog you are now breathing!  At least it was comfortable inside…

2013 and 2014 Ford C-Max Video Review: Kids, Carseats & Safety

2013 & 2014 Ford C-Max Hybrid Video Review: Kids, Carseats & Safety

2013-14FordCmax

Looking for a smart, economical vehicle that doesn’t say “Prius” on it?  Something that has a reasonably well-designed back seat for kids and carseats?  If so, the Ford C-Max should definitely be on your short list!  For 2014, you can expect slightly better fuel economy, thanks to improvements in the powertrain and aerodynamics.  Even so, because of some issues with the EPA ratings, the new labels will indicate a decrease to 45 mpg city, 40 mpg highway and 43 mpg overall.  For those familiar with driving a Prius or other hybrid, this drop may not be a disappointment in real world driving.  For example, I achieved just over the EPA ratings of 47 mpg around town for a 2013 model with some basic hybrid driving techniques; slightly better than the Prius V I tested in similar conditions.

 

 

The 2nd row of the C-Max is one of the better setups I’ve seen in a compact vehicle.  The lower LATCH anchors are easy to find.  The seatbelts and LATCH anchors don’t overlap.  The buckles are not too short, such that they are difficult for kids in boosters to buckle themselves like in a Prius.  All head restraints can be removed if necessary to fit a taller carseat.  The middle seat, while narrow, can still manage a 3-across with careful selection.  Overall, it’s slightly wider and much nicer than the standard Prius in terms of fitting kids and carseats.

Perhaps the only major downside is that there is not a lot of legroom back there, like any compact car.  It’s about the same as the standard Prius, but the seat cushions seem lower to the floor.  So, adults may find it a bit cramped in back.  If that’s an issue, the roomier Toyota Prius V does offer adjustable 2nd row seats that are more comfortable for older passengers in terms of legroom and also space for a rear-facing carseat.

 

 

The C-Max comes only in a 5-door hatchback, which is great if you want to fit a stroller and some groceries.  The only oddity is that the top tether anchors are fabric loops on the back of the seat, NOT to be confused with the sturdy-looking metal cargo hooks on the floor!  Fabric loops are perfectly fine, just something to note when you are looking for metal anchors.  As for the hatch, the optional power assist feature is great.  My son liked being able to open the lift gate. :-)

 

Carseats:

As mentioned, the 2nd row setup of seatbelts and LATCH is very intuitive.  Ford is also to be commended for allowing the top tether system to be used up to the maximum limit indicated by the child safety seat manufacturer.

Below, left, I tested a Britax Advocate convertible carseat.  Installed rear-facing, it left adequate legroom for a 5’10″ driver in front.  With a Recaro ProSport combination seat on the other side, a small adult or narrow booster would still have room in the center seat.  The same applies to the Cosco Scenera and Graco Nautilus I tested, below, right.  Finally, at the bottom, you can see the locations for attaching a front-facing (left) and rear-facing (right) tether system.

The Joy of Hybrids: Part II

Continued from Part I

No, you don’t need a fancy new super-high-mileage car to protect the planet for your kids and grandkids.  You don’t even need a new car at all.  Like I said in Part I, just accelerating very gradually and coasting when possible, especially as you approach a stop, can do a lot.  There are other things you can do, too.  Keep your car tuned up; use fuel efficient oil grades if allowed by the manufacturer and replace dirty air filters.  Keep the tires inflated to at least the recommended pressure.  Drive at a reasonable speed; above 60 or 65mph, you lose a lot of fuel just fighting the air the faster you go.  Don’t keep unnecessary cargo in the vehicle.  Not only can it be a flying hazard in a crash, but heavy objects cost you fuel as well.  These things alone can easily save you 10% in fuel, probably more.  That may not sound like a lot, but if everyone would just do these inexpensive and simple steps, we could cut oil use and emissions by staggering amounts on a national level.  The EPA has more tips here.

When you are buying a car, buy the smallest and most fuel efficient model that meets your needs.  Yes, that’s a big shift in how we think about cars and associate them with freedom, but it really is the biggest thing we can do to fight high fuel prices, dependence on foreign oil and to cut pollution and carbon emissions.  When selecting that car, the truth is, most of us won’t ever tow.  Many of those that do need to tow simply don’t need the towing capacities of 10,000 or even 7,500 pounds offered by the big, inefficient engines found in pickup trucks and large SUVs.  Despite powerful marketing, most of us don’t actually need AWD or 4WD.  In many urban and suburban areas without a lot of hills, people just don’t get stuck in the snow or ice, and the ones that do are usually the idiots in AWD or 4WD vehicles who forgot that their mighty truck doesn’t stop any better than anything else.  I’ve never once been stuck in the 2WD cars I’ve driven around the Chicago area for 25 years.  A good set of winter tires is a lot more useful for most people than AWD and they help with stopping, something AWD can’t do.    Most of us also don’t need to do 0-60 in 7 seconds, or even 8 seconds.  That base level trim of that new vehicle that does 0-60 in 9.5 seconds, tows 2,500 pounds and doesn’t have AWD gets 20% higher fuel economy around town than the rugged trim level you want, but don’t actually need.  For many buyers who absolutely must have the room of a full-size SUV, a top-rated minivan can get almost 30% more fuel economy, has better crash test results and actually has just as much practical cargo space and seating flexibility, if not more.

That long commute you do every day?  There’s a simple way you can cut your fuel use and emissions in half, at the very least.  Use public transportation.  Or carpool.  Sure, there are excuses.  It can cost you a few minutes for extra stops.  You might have to make small talk.  Maybe you enjoy breathing smog?  But the fuel savings and ease on traffic congestion would be considerable if people actually did carpool.  Instead, those of us in hybrids, clean diesels, electrics and high-fuel-economy sub-compacts give a smug shrug when we see all those gas guzzlers not even getting 15mpg, sitting in stopped traffic with everyone else.  Even the Highlander Hybrid, the most fuel efficient 3-row SUV and recently top rated by a leading consumer magazine, could do better in terms of fuel economy.  Why don’t they offer a less expensive version with a smaller engine and 2WD?  Someday, when we start choosing to save gas as a nation, consumer preferences will start forcing auto makers to stop increasing the “power” specs each year, and start increasing fuel economy, instead.

Smaller, lighter vehicles not only tend to be more fuel efficient, but less mass on the road means less energy in crashes.  Plenty of small cars are getting top crash safety ratings today, too.  Combined with driving safer to maximize fuel economy and minimize harmful emissions, that leaves all of us safer.    There’s one final joy.  When you drive any fuel efficient vehicle, you earn something that owners of gas guzzlers only receive through hypocrisy.  The right to sincerely complain about gasoline prices, air pollution, global warming and foreign policy regarding oil-rich nations.  You can not only complain, but you will know that you are less a part of the problem and more a part of the solution.  That alone can be worth the entry price, which for a new car, can be under 14k for a safe and efficient non-hybrid model like the slick new Ford Fiesta (29 city, 38 highway), or under 17K if you opt for one with the Super Fuel Economy package that adds a couple more mpg!

The Joy of Hybrids: Part I

I’ve been driving a minivan for about a decade.  I’ve eyed those sports and luxury cars at auto shows or as they whiz past me on the road.  I’d love to have a Dodge Challenger R/T, an Audi A4 Quattro or perhaps a BMW 650i convertible.  With limitations due to kids and budget, they just didn’t quite ever work into the picture.  Instead, lesser-auto-equipped guys like me have to compensate with stupid driving.

For most, that means aggressive driving.  Jackrabbit starts in suburbia at one stoplight.  Speed up to 60mph in a 45mph zone for half a mile, then stop at the next light.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Swerving around one driver doing ‘only’ 5-10 mph over the limit, only to be blocked a few moments later by the next one.  Frequent changes to the other lane that is moving faster, only to have it slow down, prompting a switch back.   Tailgating within a few feet of someone’s bumper, to let the driver ahead know that they should be going even faster, then once they move out of the way, doing the same to the next car, and so on.  Frequent horn use, to make sure everyone knows how their driving didn’t meet your expectations.  Constant gear changes, even with an automatic, for no other reason than it’s there.  Road Rage.  All dangerous stuff, to be sure, and while guys may be the usual suspects, the same behaviors affect both genders.  For what?  To shave literally just a couple minutes off of a 45 minute commute.

A step down from that are passive-aggressive drivers, whose efforts are mostly to annoy other drivers on the road.  I qualify as a subset of that group, something I might call “passive anti-aggressive” drivers.