Model-year 2012 marks the seventh year that Toyota’s Highlander mid-size SUV has been available as a hybrid. In 2008, Toyota completely redesigned the Highlander Hybrid, giving it more refinement and a larger body while still maintaining the same gas mileage as its predecessor. In 2011, the Highlander Hybrid received what the auto industry calls a “mid-cycle refresh.” The update included new front-end styling, additional standard features and, surprisingly, a new powertrain that returns better fuel economy.

For 2012, the Highlander Hybrid has no significant changes. Still, with no competition in its class, the automaker is poised for continued dominance of the “large families who love hybrids” market.

Under The Hood

The gas-electric Highlander was outfitted last year with a 3.5-liter V6 engine, replacing the 3.3-liter six of its predecessors. The dual-overhead cam Atkinson-cycle engine (a more fuel-efficient version of the traditional four-stroke Otto-cycle engine) is rated at 231-horsepower. In addition, two electric motors join this powertrain, one in the front and one in the rear, boosting the overall horsepower to a very respectable 280. There is a third electric motor that operates solely as an engine starter. The whole system is connected to a continuously variable transmission, which is engineered to manage the various sources of power in a way that maximizes the Highlander Hybrid’s efficiency.

2012 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Engine

For even greater emphasis on efficiency, Toyota has outfitted the Highlander Hybrid with both “EV” and “Econ” driving modes. In EV, this hybrid functions solely on electric power, but only at low speeds and distances up to one mile. The more practical “Econ” mode works to limit throttle response in order to promote greater fuel economy. In other words, it restrains the engine’s ability to operate at its full potential. The ideal time to use this function is during stop-and-go traffic.

The result of this electronic wizardry when combined with the V-6 is an EPA fuel mileage rating of 28/28 city/highway and 28 combined. That’s the best fuel economy of any seven-passenger SUV available.

Though the Highlander Hybrid is a four-wheel-drive vehicle, it is not suited for off-road driving. The 4-WD system does not have a mechanical driveshaft from the front to the rear, and doesn’t require power-transfer gearing. Instead, it simply demands more torque from the rear electric motor as conditions demand.

Exterior

The hybrid model is differentiated from the gasoline model by its own unique grille and bumper design. It shares fenders and hood with the gas Highlander, but features color-keyed rocker panels with chrome accents, plus vertically stacked fog lamps. The projector beam headlights and redesigned taillights feature blue lens covers.

2012 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Front View

The hybrid version has about one inch less ground clearance than the standard all-wheel drive Highlander SUV, making entry and exit more like a minivan. Base models are equipped with 17-inch alloy wheels, while the Limited trim brings 19-inch alloy wheels and a power rear liftgate.

The Highlander won’t turn many heads, but then again, it’s not supposed to. But the looks boast a wide appeal that is popular with families, weekend roadtrippers, and diehard urbanites.

Interior

Interior style is well refined and smart, granting a comfortable cabin with many convenient features. Interior materials, as expected, are of high quality.

The big plus inside is standard third-row seating. The far-row seat is split 50/50, allowing four passengers in the vehicle when one half of the second and third seats are folded to accommodate long objects. Access to the third row is made easy with a walk-in lever placed at an easy to reach position at the bottom of the passenger-side second-row seat.

2012 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Interior

The Toyota Highlander Hybrid offers a wonderful 40/20/40-split second-row bench seat. It reclines, slides fore and aft and the center section can be removed and stowed away, leaving an open center aisle. This configuration results in a pair of second-row captain’s chairs with fold-down armrests, much like those found in many minivans.

In terms of cargo capacity, this SUV provides 10.3 cubic feet of space when the third row is in use, just over 42 cubic feet of space behind the second row when the third row is folded. With all rear seats stowed away, the Highlander Hybrid allows for a voluminous 94 cubic feet of storage area.

The Highlander Hybrid is available in both base and Limited trim levels. Base models come well equipped with seven-passenger seating, air-conditioning with rear climate control, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel and eight-way power driver’s seat. The standard CD audio system includes XM Radio, MP3/WMA capabilities along with Ipod connectivity and Bluetooth wireless technology. There’s also a center screen in the dash to display various bits of vehicle information as well as to provide the image captured by the car’s back-up camera. A navigation system is optional.

2012 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Information Display

The Limited model adds leather interior with a 10-way power driver’s seat and four-way power front passenger seat that are both heated, power moonroof and three-zone climate control. DVD entertainment and navigation systems are options.

There is a gaggle of electronic active safety features: electronic stability control, traction control, and four-wheel anti-lock disk brakes with brake force distribution and brake assist. Occupant safety is delivered by seven airbags including dual-front, front side, side curtain, and one at the driver’s knee.

On The Road

Both the hybrid and standard Highlander are car-based — or crossover — midsize SUVs based on the Toyota Camry sedan. While not precisely duplicating the Camry, the Highlander Hybrid’s four-wheel independent suspension provides a ride that is noticeably superior to truck-based SUVs. Car and Driver had this to say: “Despite its electric bits, the hybrid drives almost exactly like a conventional Highlander. That means a high level of equipment, a cushy ride, great interior versatility, decent power, and spacious passenger accommodations.” The Orlando Sentinel’s reviewer was also impressed: “On the road, the ride is smooth and quiet. The electric power steering has above-average feel, and while the Highlander is no sports car, handling is better than you’d expect.”

2012 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Rear View

As for the transition from electric drive to the gasoline engine, Car and Driver commented, “The switch between electric and internal-combustion power is nearly seamless, usually necessitating a glance at the dash-mounted power meter/trip computer to see what the V-6 is (or is not) doing.”
Economics

Regardless of all its other positives, its 28 miles per gallon city rating is, hands down, the vehicle’s crowning achievement.

The 2012 Toyota Highlander Hybrid has a base price that ranges from $38,140 for the entry model to $43,795 for the Limited. That’s approximately $3,000 to $7,700 more than the conventional gas-powered Highlander, depending on model comparison. But, for the premium in cost, the Highlander offers 10 more horsepower and 11 more miles to the gallon in the city and six more on the highway. Plus, tailpipe emissions are cleaner.

When comparing the Highlander to the popular, and soon to be discontinued Ford Escape Hybrid, there is a similar price difference. The Highlander is about $5,800 more expensive. The biggest difference falls in the way of sheer power and strength between the two vehicles. The Highlander Hybrid offers 280 horsepower and can tow up to 3,500 pounds, while the Ford Escape Hybrid rates at a much less useful 177 horsepower, with a towing capacity of only 1,000 pounds. The Escape hybrid does, however, edge the Highlander out in fuel efficiency, by about five to 10 percent, depending on model comparisons. You’ll need to decide if the extra mpg and the $5,800 premium trump the Toyota name as the leader in hybrid technology.

2012 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Right Side

Compared to its corporate cousin, the Lexus RX 450h, the Highlander comes in at about $6,000 less. But that’s to be expected, regardless of the fact that the two vehicles feature the same hybrid system with virtually the same performance, same horsepower and nearly the same fuel economy. In the end, the Lexus is a true status symbol, and so it commands a significantly higher price tag. The Highlander’s greater affordability also comes from allowing shoppers to hedge on costs by opting down certain amenities, like upholstery, sound system, and other creature comforts that come standard on the Lexus. It should be noted that the most visible advantage Highlander has over the Rx450h is the availability of seven-passenger seating.

Consumers who don’t need to seat seven would probably be better served looking at the Ford Escape Hybrid, which offers the superior fuel economy of 34/31/32. But for eco-minded consumers looking for a practical people-mover, who can ask for anything more than the most fuel-efficient seven-passenger vehicle on the market?

Prices are Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) at time of writing and do not include destination charges, taxes or licensing.