Toyota has launched a fully redesigned Highlander and Highlander Hybrid mid-size sports utility range at the Chicago motor show.


The 2008 model, replacing a line launched in 2001. is larger, roomier and more powerful than its predecessor – it is nearly four inches longer and three inches wider, with an inch more ground clearance and three inches of additional wheelbase – yet Toyota Motor Sales US (TMS) said its fuel consumption would be virtually unchanged.


In the US, the seven-seat Highlander, larger than the entry-level RAV4 model, is part of a three-vehicle, mid-size Toyota SUV line-up along with the 4Runner and FJ Cruiser.


It is also one of the few SUVs currently available with a hybrid powertrain in the US.


The Highlander is not a US-only model, though. Badged as the Kluger, it is also available in other markets including Japan and Australia.


Toyota Australia on Friday confirmed the redesigned Kluger would be launched there “later this year”. US sales start in July.


TMS said the US-specification Highlander will have a segment-leading seven airbags, including a driver’s knee airbag and roll-sensing side curtain airbags for all three rows.


Anti-lock brakes, traction control, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist, and, for the first time, enhanced vehicle stability control, with electronic power steering will all be standard.


All model except the BASE models will have a stand-alone backup camera with a multi-information screen, not tied to a navigation system.


The Highlander will also be the first Toyota division vehicle in the US with both active head restraints and a new hood and fender system designed to crumple on impact with a pedestrian.


The new SUV, styled at Toyota’s Calty Design Research centre in Newport Beach, California, is built on a new platform derived from the current US-built Camry and Avalon sedans.


Interior features include second-row individual ‘captain’s chairs’ with armrests that can be converted to a bench seat for three passengers.


A ‘centre Stow’ seat, when not in use, is hidden in a compartment under the front centre console.


In its place, passengers can snap-in the provided centre stow centre console or choose to leave the area open as a walk-through to the third row.


The second row also slides forward and back and reclines.


Other features include a third-row bench seat with foldable headrests for a flat rear cargo area, a rear glass hatch for quick access to the back and keyless ‘smart start and entry’ for the top petrol Limited and all hybrid models.


US buyers will be offered Base, Sport and Limited trim/equipment grades.


All three will be powered by a new 270bhp 3.5-litre V6 with 55 more horsepower than the previous generation’s 3.3-litre engine coupled to a standard five-speed automatic transmission. Both two- and four-wheel drive versions will be offered.


Two months later, the redesigned Highlander Hybrid goes on sale in the US in Base and Limited grades with Toyota’s advanced VDIM stability system that integrates full-time four-wheel drive with intelligence, electronic brake and throttle control, and electronically-controlled active steering.


The 3.3-litre V6 Hybrid Synergy Drive system with CVT automatic gearbox (similar to the Lexus RX300 powertrain) has been upgraded and refined for 2008 for both improved power and fuel economy.


In an age if weight reduction measures, the latest Highlander has actually gained about 500lbs in US trim, “growing significantly in every dimension and receiving extensive body and chassis reinforcement, aimed specifically at achieving best-in-class crash ratings,” according to Toyota.


The hybrid has been boosted to 270 horsepower, and fuel economy is 31 miles per (smaller) US gallon in the city and 27 highway on the official federal test programme.


“The Toyota division now markets a six-vehicle SUV line-up that appeals to specific buyer demographics and life stages,” TMS said in a launch statement.


“It is a line-up that gives us enormous flexibility in responding to shifts in the marketplace.”