In the case of the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, you have to pay up front if you want to save at the pump - and wear an ecological white hat.

The top-of-the-line hybrid I tested, the Limited Platinum AWD, had a base price of $49,990. That's $5,850 more than a comparable gas-engine model.

What you get for those extra bucks is a substantial improvement in fuel economy. The conventionally powered counterpart to the tester has EPA mileage ratings of 18 city and 24 highway. The test car is rated at 27 city and 28 highway. According to its fuel-economy gauge, I got 25.7 m.p.g. in several hundred miles of mixed driving. That's pretty good for a midsize, seven-passenger crossover that weighs in at a hefty 4,861 pounds.

The only downside to that mileage bump, apart from the price premium, is the lower-torque hybrid's reduced towing capacity: At 3,500 pounds, it is 1,500 pounds less than the regular Highlander.

Interestingly enough, the hybrid accelerates almost as well as the lighter gas version, getting from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in about 7.5 seconds. And through clever placement of the battery pack, there is no reduction in cargo space, which remains at 13.6 cubic feet behind the third row of seats, and 42.3 with the third row folded down.

The Highlander was redesigned for 2014 and is virtually unchanged this model year. The 2016 rendition, which will be in showrooms near the end of this year, will undergo a bit of tweaking, including a new grille and some modifications to the electrical drivetrain.

The third-generation Highlander I drove represents a stylish leap past its rather boxy predecessor, and typifies the automaker's somewhat belated emphasis on appealing exterior design. The interior of the extremely well-equipped Limited Platinum is also attractive and quite useful. I ran out of fingers counting the cupholders (there are four in the front and eight in the back). There is also a handy shelf under the dash, and a console storage compartment large enough to house misbehaving children.

The tester proved roomy in the first two rows of seats, while the third was best suited to children. The second-row buckets slid forward, making third-row ingress and egress relatively easy.

The dash design is interesting and functional. Its only flaw is the distance the driver has to reach to turn the radio tuning knob and the other controls on the passenger side of the infotainment screen.

The other nit to be picked would be the time it takes the automatic liftgate to finally start lifting. (I think it first takes time to put on a supportive belt so it doesn't get a hernia.)

Driving the Highlander Hybrid is pleasant business. The tester's leather-trimmed seats were comfortable and supportive, and visibility was good. The suspension dealt competently with bumps and provided a nice ride. The Highlander was exceptionally quiet at highway speeds.

While the upmarket tester got high marks for comfort and safety, performance was something of a mixed bag. The 3.5-liter V-6, coupled with two electric motors, puts out a total of 280 horsepower, which provides adequate but hardly pulse-quickening oomph.

The Highlander's driving dynamics remind you that it isn't exactly intended for road racing. The electric power steering is a little slow on the draw when treated to sudden inputs, and ambitious corners are accompanied by marked understeer and body lean.

The 215 Highlander got the Kelley Blue Book "Best Buy Award" in the midsize crossover category.

It was also among 100,000 Toyotas recalled for a possible defect that could result in a potentially dangerous loss of power-steering assist.


2015 Toyota Highlander (Limited Platinum AWD)

Base price: $49,990.

As tested: $53,771.

Standard equipment: 3.0-liter engine and two electric motors, a continuously variable automatic transmission, all-wheel-drive, and a luxurious litany of safety gear and amenities, including adaptive cruise control, lane departure alert, leather-trimmed seats, power heated front seats, second-row sunshades, and

a panoramic moon roof.

Options: Include remote start, towing gear, and running boards.

Fuel economy:

27 city and

28 highway.

Engine performance: Adequate.

Ride comfort: Excellent.

Warranty: Three years/36 months bumper to bumper.

The Ben key: four Bens, excellent; three Bens, good; two Bens, fair; one Ben, poor.