Toyota’s Highlander line was thoroughly updated last year, growing larger and prettier, and carries forward for 2015 as an appealing alternative to the minivan.
Now in its third generation, the seven-passenger all-wheel-drive hybrid version with efficient but powerful drivetrain tech adopted from the Prius is also third generation since the Highlander Hybrid was introduced in 2004.
This kind of vehicle occupies an important segment for automakers, and what started in non-hybrid form in 2001 as a Camry based counterpoint to the pickup-based 4Runner has evolved into a quasi-truck – with the heart of the Camry still.
The vehicle has been given a physical presence to match the likes of the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Nissan Pathfinder Hybrid, but gets better mileage than them all.
Four-cylinder and six-cylinder versions in the non-hybird Highlander model lineup span from the low $30,000 to low-mid $40,000s, and the hybrid crests even higher.
Specifically, the hybrid comes in two “mono-spec” trim levels starting at $48,325 for the Limited and $50,815 for the Limited Platinum respectively. These have nary an option available beyond things like floor mats, cargo liner, running boards, and other add-ons. Our Limited Platinum was just shy of $51,700.
The Highlander Hybrid is therefore nearly Lexus level, about $6,300 more than a non-hybrid V6 with comparable equipment. But it does offer a package deal. More than just the sophisticated Hybrid Synergy Drive, Toyota also includes its rear-electric-motor all-wheel-drive that is not unlike what Tesla will use on its Model X.
The Highlander Hybrid’s 3.5-liter Atkinson cycle V6-based system actually merges three electric motors into one seamless drivetrain – one front and one rear for propulsion,and a third for starting and recharging the battery. Federal fuel economy rating is 27/28 mpg city, 28 highway, 28 combined for the two trim levels. Compared to the non-hybrid Highlander V6, this is 10 mpg better in the city, 4 mpg better on the highway, and 8 mpg better combined.
The hybrid is also the most-powerful drivetrain next to the 185-horsepower 2.7-liter four, and 270-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 non-hybrid Highlanders, but performance is offset by an additional 350 pounds.
Power through its continuously variable transmission is however enough to get the over-5,000 seven passenger vehicle up and running to 60 mph in the low to mid seven-second range. Towing capacity does suffer though, at just 3,500 pounds – less than the 5,000 pounds for the non-hybrid and around 9,000 pounds for comparable American SUVs.
The Highlander Hybrid is less about getting that big boat to the lake and more about functioning like a car with truck benefits instead of the other way around.
With a tougher look than a minivan – which still may be the more effective way to haul a big family – the Highlander bakes in comfort, solid inclement weather ability, and authority on the road – if not off-road capability like a body-on-frame truck would.
It’s like a truck that’s been to charm school – it does what people used to want when they’d co-opt a real truck for around town usage but without the rough ride, low safety rating, and truck-like handling and feel.
For this newest upgrade, the Highlander was redesigned three-inches longer, is a bit wider, yet the 191.1-inch-long vehicle rides on a Camry-like 109.8-inch wheelbase. To really gauge just how the Highlander has grown, it’s 10 inches longer than the first-generation Highlander, as well as six-inches taller, and four-inches wider.
Inside, however, it has lots of car-like creature comforts, nicely stitched leather seats, a fair amount of soft-touch materials – with some basic but probably more serviceable plastic surfaces interspersed.
Room inside is quite accommodating, as you might expect. Four captain’s chairs in the first and second rows offer ample accommodations, as well as Big-Gulp sized cup and bottle holders. In the third row, it’s mainly for kids or shorter statured adults.
The modular seating slides forward and reclines. Fold them all flat and you nearly have a passing imitation of an enclosed pickup truck’s rear space. Maximum cargo space is 83.7 cubic feet with the second and third row folded flat. With just the third row folded, you have 42.3 cubic feet. Or it’s 13.8 cubic feet in back with all seats upright – the 34-percent more than the prior generation.
What’s not to like? This vehicle has everything except, perhaps massaging seats and a couple other high-end luxury features.
The 8-way power-adjustable seats are heated up front, and electronic connectivity is via Toyota’s Enform infotainment with navigation, nice-sounding audio with JBL speakers, and it lets you connect and charge your devices.
People who like to bring lots of stuff will appreciate useful utility tray space up front plus a cavernous box-like compartment utilizing a roll-top plastic cover separates the front seats.
Another feature for this family focused vehicle is the PA system called Driver Easy Speak. This lets you voice your intentions to people – such as the kids – in the back seats by amplifying it through the rear speakers. It’s one-way communication though so that may be a good thing if you don’t want them yelling back with the same volume. Whether they will listen to you or not is up to you, but it’s assured that that you will be heard.
Driving The Highlander Hybrid
Like a Prius, the vehicle starts in all-electric mode, and defaults to front-wheel-drive via its 167 horsepower, 247 pound-feet of torque. The all-wheel-drive system – basically the 68 horsepower, 103 pounds-foot rear electric drive motor – works either with a mash of the pedal for maximum propulsion, or when slippage occurs, such as in wet, icy or snowy conditions. A similar system is on the Lexus RX 450h.
A harder push of the accelerator, or higher road speed, or merely an insufficiently charged battery will also instantly fire up the gas engine which feeds in power to the blended system.
Available battery power is not really a concern, as the system maintains the charge via its permanent magnet motor generator, which also starts the engine and controls transmission ratios. There are some occasions however when normally available low-speed all-electric drive may not be available.
Acceleration is brisk, and power for heavy loads is there, but Toyota does not list total hybrid system torque. Just the gas engine is rated 231 horsepower, 215 pounds-feet torque, but the total is not as simple as adding the drive motor(s) to the engine, as they hit their peaks at different times. It is enough though, for most tasks except drag racing Teslas.
Beyond their functional aspects, as mentioned the truck-like element puts you in a commanding position above all the little Corollas and Civics of the world, and it does score well in crash tests. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has given it five-stars overall, with four stars for frontal crash and rollover, and five stars for side impact.
It has eight airbags, a rear-view camera for backing up, and good sight lines for outward visibility. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety has also given it a Top Safety Pick Plus rating.
All told, the commanding position helps in making it an enjoyable enough ride, but as is true of a lot of such SUVs, you never forget you are in a big vehicle.
Steering effort and driving are very easy, not excessively more demanding than a Camry, but the higher center of gravity and kinetic energy are there.
Going around corners, dynamics are competent with the updated MacPherson strut front suspension and double-wishbone rear, but this is not a BMW X5.
Rather, although Toyota’s current add campaign tha this is not “boring” is essentially true, as is also true of its vehicles, The Highlander is better known to get the job done, and in this, it lives up to its reputation.
Speaking of which, Toyota is known for its hybrids, and this one does not disappoint in the fuel economy department. We were able without much care to get 26-27 in combined driving, and with greater care could exceed the EPA rating buy 1-2 mpg, and a more careful effort could yield even better. Hard driving and speeding do however drop the mpg to the low 20s.
We did not have opportunity to load it up with seven passengers and gear however, so cannot say what that will do with 1,000 pounds of extra weight, more or less, that this could mean.
In any event, the total experience is one of competence, comfort, and relative quietness. The new Highlander was designed with more attention to noise, vibration, and harshness. Sound deadening material, and acoustic glass – even the double-length moonroof is quieted – help keep the noise level tolerable within the large all-weather luxo cush mobile.
The ideal buyer for the Highlander Hybrid is someone who needs the seven-passenger capacity and space, and who would have opted for a fully equipped all-wheel-drive Highlander – or other upscale SUV – in the first place.
It’s true Toyota packs a price premium on its hybrid variants, but this is kind of a package deal, so one could value it for its technology, including the all-wheel-drive that needs no drive shaft.
People who can appreciate the Highlander Hybrid will also be those who want to do their part for the environment, and who value the quiet part-time electric drive, and unique packaging.
According to one cost-of-ownership calculator, after five years the Highlander Hybrid closes the price gap just $2,800 more than a comparable non-hybrid Highlander, and longer ownership or longer than average miles would see the payback happen sooner.
Being that the Highlander is an evolved product, it is unique in its class, does outsell the 2.5-liter four-cylinder supercharged Nissan Pathfinder Hybrid, but the five-passenger Lexus RX 450h outsells the Highlander Hybrid by two-to-one.
As Toyota’s largest hybrid with highest passenger capacity, the Highlander Hybrid is a solid performer, better than ever, and while not for everyone, it can provide an extra element of personal satisfaction in an otherwise practical vehicle.