HYBRID UPDATE: I’ve driven the Highlander over 500 miles now, and filled the tank up to figure (from actual consumption, not just the trip computer) that it’s gotten about 30.5 miles per gallon average over the past week. That’s about right, given the mix of highway and city driving I’ve done. I’m surprised to find that it seems nimbler than the Passat wagon, even though it’s (very slightly) longer.

The Insta-Wife finds the size intimidating when parking in the garage, though. Maybe I’ll get one of these gadgets if she doesn’t get over that.

As I’ve said before, if you just want to save money, a hybrid isn’t the way to go, yet. With SUV prices depressed at the moment, you’re better off buying a gas-powered SUV at a steep discount or — better still — getting, say, a 3-year-old Ford Expedition on a lease turn-in. But I’m very impressed that the Highlander hybrid has more pickup, and better handling, than most SUVs, and I also have to say that I like the electronic continuously variable transmission a lot more than I thought I would. Some people don’t like the absence of shift points, but I don’t miss ’em.

UPDATE: Reader Jeff Quade emails:

Don’t spend the money! Park the car in the garage, just where you want it. Hang a tennis ball from a string from the ceiling, so it just touches the windshield right in front of the driver’s seat. Viola! When the insta-wife pulls in, she pulls in till she sees the ball just kiss the windshield – perfect!

Cool. The Highlander, by the way, has a backup proximity-alarm that I thought was silly, but that actually turns out to be useful. But the obvious solution — back in to the garage — doesn’t appeal.

Meanwhile, reader Chris Runhaar emails:

Regarding the CVT: we’ve got a Nissan Murano with a CVT and also love it. It makes for better gas mileage and better acceleration. But when I loved it the most was when I was towing a 3300 lb trailer from San Jose to Austin (moving due to real estate prices). Set the cruise control, and the transmission smoothly adjusts the RPM to match the grade. No abrupt downshifts, no need to disable overdrive. It was so much smoother than any automatic I’ve been in, even when the automatic wasn’t pulling almost four tons of car, trailer, and cargo.

But I do tend to accelerate too long when merging onto a freeway, etc. because the constant-rpm engine noise doesn’t give any aural hints of acceleration. Pretty soon, I’m doing 10mph or 20mph faster than I intended, but the tach needle is still at 4000. If it weren’t for arbitrarily low speed limits, I’d consider that a bonus!

They are arbitrarily low, aren’t they?