2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Review
By Ken Glassman
Last year the Toyota Highlander underwent its third major makeover, and not much has changed for this year. While the Highlander is technically a crossover vehicle, based upon a car platform, it looks and feels very much more truck-like, and seems more akin to the Toyota 4Runner than a Camry. It is a large vehicle, which seats 7 or 8 depending upon the interior choices, and has more cargo space than the last generation. It is also better looking, with a bold front end and brawny, bulging fenders.
The base model comes equipped with the same 2.7 liter engine that is found in the much smaller Rav 4, which makes 185 horsepower, and 184 ft. lbs. of torque. Only about 5% of buyers will choose that motor, but it allows Toyota to advertise a low base price, at just under $30,000. An optional 3.5 liter V-6 is available, and that engine will put out 270 horsepower and 248 ft. lbs of torque, and is available in both front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive versions.
I had the all-wheel-drive hybrid model which pairs a detuned version of the 3.5 liter V-6 and an electric motor that powers the rear wheels only. An electronically controlled CVT transmission puts the power to the pavement. This systems adds 350 lbs. to the already corpulent AWD Limited, and brings the curb weight up to 4861 lbs. That’s enough extra weight to make this hybrid a slowpoke on the road. And when you stomp on it, there’s more than a little engine noise coming into the cabin. Payback, however, comes in the form of excellent gas mileage of 27 City and 28 Highway.
The gas-only V6 model is rated at 18 and 24 mpg. The fact that the hybrid gets only 1 more mile per gallon on the highway as the city, is probably due to the brick-like shape that is anything but aerodynamic on the highway. Aiding the City mileage is the engine shut-off at stops. Other Toyota products that I’ve tested with this feature were better at seamless restarts. In the Highlander, when the engine comes back on, it is noticeable. Towing capacity suffers with the hybrid, maxing out at 3,500 lbs. versus the 5,000 lb. capacity of the non-hybrid version.
On the road, the Highlander exhibits SUV riding traits. You can feel the weight, and there’s a lot of body lean in turns. The large 19” wheels and wide aggressive tread tires make for some unwanted noise while droning down the highway at speed. But wind noise is minimal. Steering is over-assisted and vague. But the suspension does soak up bumps well, and offers a reasonably smooth ride. Hey, nobody buys a Highlander to go autocrossing with it.
The cabin is very car like and well thought out. One very nice little feature, is the roof mounted sunglass holder which has a built in convex mirror setting which lets the driver see the second row seats, to keep an eye on the baby, or just carry on a conversation with passengers. The dash is a sweeping affair with an excellent gauge package for the driver, and a large touch screen Nav system dominating the center, but still leaving room for the HVAC control knobs beneath.
And it is easy to use the Nav system to input addresses and retrieve useful information. Save the voice commands for other functions, however, unless your destination is on Main Street, and is located in a very well-known large city. It will recognize Milwaukee, but not Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. But pairing a cell phone is a snap, and the sound quality of the speakerphone is excellent.
Another great feature of the interior is a large tray that runs from the center stack to the end of the passenger’s side dash, which can hold a variety of small items from cell phones to MP3 players, or gloves and glasses. And there’s also plenty of storage space in the door pockets, glove box, and a center console large enough to stash a Toyota Yaris inside it.
On the downside, the cup holders are cartoonishly large, so unless you always travel with a Big Gulp or Thermos bottle, your chosen beverage container will swim around in the cupholder.
With a price tag at just under 50 grand, you’d expect to find the cabin appointed like a luxury car, and the Highlander doesn’t disappoint. The wood accents are handsome. The heated and cooled leather seats are roomy and quite comfortable. Soft touch materials abound in the right places, and the fit and finish is top drawer.
Some of the very useful safety features include Lane Departure and Blind Side warnings, along with Radar Cruise Control. Rear Park Assist Warning aids the back-up camera, and the power rear liftgate is great when you’ve got your hands full. One complaint is with the heated steering wheel, which is a very welcome amenity in the North. This one only gets hot at the 3 and 9 O’clock hand position on the leather wrapped wheel, and a hint of warmth near the bottom. Nothing at the top. But, the huge panoramic moonroof brings the outdoors inside, even in the winter the sunshine makes the cabin a cheery place to spend long hours on the road.
And it is roomy. REALLY roomy. Front and Rear leg and headroom is abundant for basketball players. Our tester was fitted with comfortable sliding captain’s chairs in the second row, with a fold down tray table in between. The third row bench is remarkably roomy, for smaller adults in a pinch, and just fine for kids.
Ingress and egress to the way-back seat is also fairly easy, either directly into the back with the captain chair slid forward, or via the space between the chairs. And even when all seats are in use, there is still a large cargo area available. Fold down that rear seat, and you’re ready to bring that new big screen TV home. Fold the second row seats, and you’re ready to some serious antiquing, or adventure traveling with mountain bikes and camping equipment inside.
Our Test vehicle started at $49,790. There was just over $1,000 of options, the most expensive being the $600 running boards. So the price with destination charges came to $51,751.
So who will want to buy this vehicle? Anyone who needs to haul lots of people and cargo, and who doesn’t want to move into the full truck experience with a Suburban or even the 4Runner. It seems odd, however, that Toyota only sells the hybrid in the most expensive Limited trim, since most hybrid buyers are looking to save money.
Many thrifty buyers might wish to save about $6,000 by going with the gas only Highlander, especially if towing is important. But don’t let these current gas prices lull you into a false sense of security. You can bet that by Christmas of 2015, gasoline will be back to recent $3.50 gas prices, and the mileage benefit from the hybrid will make this a more difficult choice.