“You probably will recover that extra investment in this Highlander hybrid while doing your eco-part to save a world that looks pretty good from high up on Mount Baker.”
On a muggy, scorching hot summer’s day, what better vehicle than the aptly named Highlander for a high-altitude scenic drive to find some cool, crisp mountain air and sink a foot in a glacier.
All-new for 2014, Highlander Hybrid is the fuel-efficient and eco-friendlier version of what Toyota describes as its mid-sized SUV, but it sure looks and feels bigger than most in this class, plus it can seat up to seven (or eight). Wider and longer than last year, this Highlander is also lower and, more importantly from a driving perspective, it has a lower centre of gravity.
There was a time when Highlander looked like an SUV, with an angular two-box design. Its styling lines have softened with successive redesigns and now if you put Highlander beside its Camry-based wagon sibling, the Venza, you need a second look to tell them apart. Not sure if that’s a good thing, but I do like its more car-like driving dynamics.
Not far south of the Canadian border, Mount Baker is a glacier-covered mountain that rises 3,286 m (10,781 ft) above sea level, which is over 900 m (3,000 ft) higher than Whistler, the best-known mountain in BC. Mount Baker is also regarded as the second most active volcano in the Cascade Mountain Range, after Mount St. Helens, but there’s been nary a puff since 1880.The Mount Baker Highway (Hwy. 542) starts in Bellingham (exit #255 off the I-5), winds east through a number of small communities and offers some interesting side tours along the way, before it climbs steeply and ends at Artist Point (1,567 m / 5,140 ft.). This large parking lot, which is about 10 km beyond the ski area, is closed during the winter months and has spectacular panoramic views, plus a selection of great hiking trails.
The highway crosses the Nooksack River at Nugent’s Corner and tracks east, alongside the north fork of the river, through old growth areas in the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest. Allow about 1.5 hours of leisurely drive time in each direction. You’ll also need a ($5) day pass to park, which you get from automated dispensers at the Glacier Public Service Center or at Heather Meadows near the skiing area.
The Hybrid Synergy Drive system in Highlander uses a 3.5L Atkinson Cycle V6 gas engine, a high torque electric motor-generator and powerful traction battery. It boasts 10 additional horsepower (280 net horsepower) over the gas-only model, yet uses almost 30 per cent less fuel.
Although Toyota has done an admirable job of masking it, Highlander Hybrid is a weighty (2,200 kg) vehicle, and has the usual characteristics of a heavy vehicle. It’s more than fine in a straight line and while handling is laudably predictable, it didn’t seem to like being tossed around on the twisty sections of the highway. Then again, that’s the norm in this class of vehicle.
Side Trips: Mount Baker Vineyards and Winery has a tasting room, offers tours, has a picnic area and is open Thursday through Sunday, noon to 5:00 p.m. It’s about 3 km east of the Nugent’s Corner roundabout, where you can also spot the historic Bethany Church (built in 1907) landmark.
Nooksack Falls is just a short (and groomed) gravel road off the highway about 11 km (7 ml) east of Glacier, which is the last community along the highway. You do have to scramble over some (slippery when wet) rocks to get to a good (and safe) fenced viewing area. The water takes a spectacular 30 m (100 ft) plunge, so a close-up view is definitely worth the extra effort.
Interesting Eating Places: Anthony’s is an excellent choice for lunch or dinner in Bellingham. Situated in the harbour area it overlooks the marina and has views of the San Juan Islands. Great service, great fare (especially the seafood), all tables come with a view and the prices are very reasonable, compared to Vancouver.
An after-meal stroll around the picturesque marina walkway also allows you to ogle hundreds of boats and yachts up close.
Web site: anthonys.com
The North Fork Brewery, Pizzeria, Beer Shrine and Wedding Chapel is an out of the ordinary and rewarding halfway (going or returning) restaurant stop on the Mount Baker Highway that’s known locally as “The Shrine”.
Don’t be put off by the long name or its rustic appearance as the food is delicious and there’s an awesome selection of fresh brewed-on-site handcrafted beers.
Web site: northforkbrewery.com
Last Word: A hybrid edition of the Toyota Highlander costs an additional $6,000 to $8,000. Yes, you probably will recover that extra investment in this hybrid while doing your eco-part to save a world that looks pretty good from high up on Mount Baker.
Quick Specs & Pricing:
Toyota Highlander Hybrid LE: $43,720
Toyota Highlander Hybrid XLE: $46,175
Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited: $52,695
3.5 Litre, V6 / Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD): 280 horsepower (net)
City/Highway fuel economy: 6.8/7.2 L/100km