Big crossovers are a big deal. Automakers know that offering a three-row crossover is an easy way to make some big sales in the US. Last year the top three sellers in the segment (the Ford Explorer, Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot) combined for over 400,000 sales.
|Engine: 280 hp 3.5-liter V6 hybrid.
Transmission: eCVT that sends power to all four wheels.
Fuel Economy: 27 MPG city, 28 MPG Highway.
Price: Starts at $48,160 with destination. As tested $50,650.
With that in mind, it’s no wonder that Toyota is putting quite a bit of focus on the new Highlander. Revised inside and out the new model is an excellent entry in the segment, but features some big compromises; namely it feels like a lumbering giant and drinks fuel at a high clip.
For many, that sounds like an issue that’s natural to large vehicles like the Highlander, but for those who hate compromising Toyota is also offering the Highlander Hybrid.
Using a Hybrid Synergy Drive setup that’s similar to what’s found in the successful Prius and Camry hybrids, the Highlander Hybrid uses a stout 3.5-liter V6 engine and throws it into a threesome of electric motors. While one motor functions as a generator, engine starter and controls the transmission, the other two provide power to each of the car’s axles giving this car all-wheel drive. Fuel economy is rated at 28 MPG combined, making this vehicle even more fuel efficient than its four-cylinder gasoline-powered counterpart.
The fuel efficiency improvement is noticeable in the real world. With a car loaded with five passengers and cargo for a weekend adventure, the Highlander easily hit the 26 MPG mark. Trips later in the week with no passengers or extra weight managed to hit 29 MPG, proving the crossover’s worth when it comes to saving fuel.
For comparison, the V6 Highlander AWD is rated at 18 MPG city and 24 MPG highway, while 4-cylinder models (which are front-wheel drive only) don’t offer much better at 20 MPG city and 25 MPG highway.
It should be noted that Toyota’s hybrid system is still impressive in terms of operation. The engine shut-off and start-up is quick and unobtrusive and the electric motors are powerful enough to keep the car strolling along for quite a while without the assistance of the gasoline engine.
Net power is rated at 280 hp, but the car feels far more responsive than that due to the instant-on feeling of torque provided by those electric motors. While it seems like the Hybrid fills in the patches left by the gas-powered Highlander, towing is one area where the gas-electric model is lacking. With a max towing rating of just 3,500 lbs. buyers will be advised to check out the regular V6 Highlander if they need more towing capability, with up to 5,000 lbs of capability.
Looking at the Highlander Hybrid and you may be intimidated by its massive size. Fortunately you don’t need a heavy-equipment license to pilot this car thanks to a natural feeling steering and suspension setup. In fact the big, three-row crossover is surprisingly easy to drive. This driver confidence comes thanks to a thick, responsive steering wheel and excellent sight-lines out of the car.
Additionally, it never feels like a chore around town thanks to a few key driver-aids. Blind-spot assist and a rear-view camera help to give better context of the world around you, while adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist work together to keep you safe en route to your destination. These features are included in the optional driver technology package.
The cabin itself is a serene place to be, a feeling that’s further enhanced by the quiet hybrid drivetrain. Along with the comfortable driving characteristics, the Highlander also features very accommodating seats, with the exception of the third row, which is small and only useful in a pinch.
A better use of the rear seats is to keep them folded down allowing for more cargo space than the standard 13.8 cubic-feet. Fold the third row and storage expands to 42 cubic-feet, while there’s a total of 83.2 cubic feet available when the second row is folded down as well. Cargo space was never a concern during our week of testing.
The Highlander only comes in the high-end Limited trim, featuring high quality leather seats and stitched accents that could easily be mistaken for those in a pricier Lexus.
Thoughtful design is prevalent throughout the Highlander. There’s a massive center-armrest storage area, while a large shelf is carved in the center console for things like your cell-phone, wallet or keys. There’s even a pass-through for cables so you can charge your phone, or use an auxiliary cable and listen to music while the device is safely stored in the cubby.
Interior features were solid too; in addition to the large touch-screen navigation system, a JBL-branded audio system, heated and cooled front seats, our tester featured the platinum package that included a heated steering wheel, heated second row seating and a massive panoramic moon roof. This option also comes with the driver technology package.
A new feature called Driver Easy Speak is also included on all models of the Highlander Hybrid. This system uses the microphone that’s normally reserved for Bluetooth calls and broadcasts the driver’s voice in the rear speakers, allowing passengers to hear the pilot a bit better.
The feature worked quite well, although passengers described the voice from the speakers as a bit tinny and distorted. It also doesn’t solve the problem of hearing what your third row passengers are saying, meaning they’re still screaming at you.
Still, a few small annoyances hindered the practically perfect cabin. Tuning through stations was a bit of a chore since the knob is quite a long distance away from the driver. In fact, all knobs, including the HVAC controls also lacked tactile feedback, adding a bit of frustration when trying to make small changes.
The Highlander Hybrid is hard to miss, not because of its size, but its styling too. A big trapezoidal grille dominates the front profile, while LED accents help the car stand out. Around back the window can be opened independently of the hatch. The nineteen-inch “Chromtec” alloy-wheels were particularly shiny and helped fill out the cars massive wheel wells.
Getting into a Highlander Hybrid isn’t cheap. The one trim level is well equipped and costs $48,160 while our tester cost $50,650.
The Highlander Hybrid resolves a few key issues with the standard gasoline model. The payoff when switching to gas-electric is huge as the Hybrid model gets better fuel efficiency and engine performance. While it’s not a cheap upgrade, it’s clearly the least compromised model of the Highlander available.