SO WHILE ALL THIS OTHER STUFF WAS GOING ON, the Insta-Wife and I were test-driving cars as part of our slow-motion campaign to figure out what will replace the aging (nearly 7 years old, so call it “late middle age”) Passat wagon.

Already tested: The Nissan Murano (nice, but lousy mileage), Infiniti FX45 (too small, lousy mileage), Honda Pilot (I liked it, she didn’t), Honda Odyssey (minivan; we both hated it), Lexus RX330 (too expensive, not enough room). Off the table: The Dodge Magnum Hemi wagon (I liked it, she didn’t, lousy mileage), the Passat TDI wagon (I liked it, great mileage, but the Insta-Daughter is sick of the Passat back seat, and she spends a lot of time there).

Today we testdrove the Toyota Highlander hybrid and the Subaru Tribeca. The Tribeca has its high points, but the Highlander was the big winner, beating out all of the cars I’ve driven.

I was ready for the quiet — turn the key and it doesn’t make any noise. I found it smooth, maneuverable, and quite impressively powerful. The interior is nicely done, though a bit busy and Toyota-ish; nothing wrong with it, but more functional than aesthetic. The third-row seats are good only for kids or small adults, but at least they’re available. Lots of cupholders.

Acceleration was quite impressive, seeming at least as good as the Passat wagon. It handled more like a car than an SUV, and the turning circle was quite small. The seats are very comfortable.
The Subaru is a lot better looking inside and out — some people don’t like the nose styling, but I do. The interior is very pretty and comfortable, probably the nicest SUV interior I’ve seen. Helen loved it. Handling was smooth and stable, though mushier than the Highlander. The downside: It’s a slug. I’d read reviews that said it was short on power, but I didn’t give them complete credence — when guys who testdrive Ferraris say that something’s sluggish, I don’t always agree. But the Subaru is slooowww. Pushing the accelerator to the floor makes the engine get louder, but doesn’t make it go appreciably faster, in a fashion reminiscent of underpowered GM products from the 1980s. Plus the mileage is still mediocre.

The winner: The Highlander. The mileage is actually better than the Passat, especially in town where I do most of my driving, it’s roomier and comfier, while driving amazingly well for something of its size. I doubt that it’s worth the premium for the hybrid on a purely economic basis — especially as old-style SUVs are trading at a deep discount now, with lots of “$5000 off” signs around the dealers, which would buy a lot of gas — but if you don’t want a minivan, and you do want room, and you’re offended by the idea of getting 16 miles per gallon, then it looks pretty good.