Although the existing V6 and V6/hybrid variants will carry over unchanged for 2009, starting in late January, Toyota plans to bolster the appeal of its popular mid-size Highlander SUV by introducing an all-new and more fuel-efficient in-line 4 engine to the lineup. Available only on the base, front-wheel drive model, this 2.7-liter double overhead cam four also will be shared with Toyota's new Venza "crossover sedan." Additional technical details have yet to be released, but in Highlander trim, the engine will produce 187 horsepower at 5,800 rpm, make 168 lb-ft of torque at 4,100 revs, use regular unleaded gasoline and be fitted with a trick dual-exhaust system that enhances both low-end torque and high-end output.
Backed by an equally-new, electronically controlled six-speed sequential automatic transmission, Toyota claims the engine will deliver acceleration that is "surprisingly quick for a four-cylinder" and still permit the Highlander to tow up to a 3,500-lb trailer when upgraded with the available tow package. It will also qualify the Highlander for Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV) II status with the Feds, making it one of the country's cleanest as well one of the most economical mid-size SUVs. No word yet as to the official mileage-making potential of this new Highlander variant, which is also destined to serve as the clear price leader of the lineup. However, current best guesstimates suggest 20/26 city/highway mpg highway EPA numbers would be close. Whatever that final count, the Highlander will be the only mid-size SUV to offer a choice of three different engine packages for 2009.
Interestingly enough, the same day these preliminary Highlander specs were released, Bob Carter, division manager for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., provided some broader-ranging perspective on the firm's strategic thinking. Speaking at the Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City, Michigan, Carter indicated that Toyota now believes gasoline prices will top out in the vicinity of $5.00 per gallon by the middle of the next decade, and that corporate internal planning currently uses a $3.50 index as its minimum short-term value.