Tell the truth: when you see one of the big SUV on the road, the first thing you think about is how much the gas costs to run it.
And while we are currently enjoying relatively low gas prices right now, trust me, the oil companies are working night and day to reverse that trend. And they will invent some reason to scare us into believing that gas prices are justified in going up. But I digress . . .
When the Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited showed up in my driveway, I was amazed to look on the Monroney Label and see the mileage ratings of 27 City and 28 Highway. That is really outstanding for a vehicle of this size and heft. Heck, my 4-cylinder Nissan Sentra doesn’t get 27 MPG in the city. And I will state that after a week of driving, those numbers are spot on.
The Highlander Hybrid is powered by a 3.5 liter V-6, coupled with multiple electric motors and a battery pack. Combined, the power train is rated at 280 hp. Power is transmitted to the road via a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT), and all-wheel drive is standard on the Hybrid. Under normal driving conditions the Highlander is driven by the front wheels, but the rear axel’s electric motor comes on when a wheel begins to lose traction, or if the driver jumps on the gas pedal for quick accelerations. The Hybrid can tow up to 3,500 pounds, which is 1,500 lbs. fewer than the conventional Highlander with the V6.
All this is seamless, and the driver isn’t aware of what’s going on under the hood and floor. And the acceleration feels surprisingly strong considering it size and weight. You can expect zero to 60 times of 8 seconds. That’s pretty quick for a 4861lb. vehicle. The hybrid is 350lbs. heavier than non-hybrid models.
Out on the road, the Highlander Hybrid rides like the huge vehicle it is. There is plenty of body lean in turns, so it isn’t a vehicle that you want to drive aggressively on twisty roads. The steering feels a bit heavy, especially at low speeds, but on the highway it feels better. The Highlander has a soft comfortable boulevard ride on the highway, and it handles pot holes and bad pavement fairly well. The regenerative brakes feel odd at first, and feel a bit touchy, but you get used to it quickly, and they slow the vehicle down from speed quite well. For a vehicle designed to haul seven passenger around in comfort, it handles that assignment better than most other vehicles in its class.
The cabin is very quiet, with little wind noise on the highway. Except for a few info screens and gauges, the interior is basically the same as the non-hybrid models. That means that it isn’t special, but it is more than acceptable. The front seats and second row Captain’s chairs are all-day comfortable. The front perforated leather seats are both heated and cooled, and both of those features worked well. Soft materials are where they should be on door sills, arm rests, and the center console. A very nice feature on the wide dashboard is a built-in shelf where driver and passenger can rest their cell phones. And there’s a clever opening to thread the charging cord through the shelf to plug into power outlets beneath it at the base of the center stack. A very large dual roll-top center console has more outlets, and can hold a lot of stuff, even a woman’s small purse. (Which is a contradiction in terms around my house). And there are outlets for the second row passengers to plug in as well. The Hybrid is only available in Limited trim level, so it only comes with the Captain’s chairs, and not available with a three person bench seat. There is a clever folding table between the seats with cup holders and room to place a tablet on. The Captain’s chairs fold and slide forward to offer fairly easy access into the third row bench seat. The roominess of the third row is best for children, but adults can put up with it for short duration trips.
Even with the third row seat in place, there is 14 cubic feet of cargo capacity – certainly enough for a large family’s grocery run. And with the rear seats all folded, you get a generous 83 cubic feet for going antiquing, or take a trip to the garden center. The rear liftgate is electrically operated, and is height adjustable for those with low ceilings in their garage. However, we’d like to have seen an easy access, hands free operating system to get into the cargo area while holding packages. At least the lift-over height is low for easy loading.
The Highlander Limited has a host of standard features. There is an 8” touch screen monitor with back up camera, cross traffic alert, and rear parking sonar. 8-way power memory seat with lumbar support (passenger seat is 4-way adjustable). The Entune JBL Sound system is excellent, and comes with Bluetooth Phone & Music App suites. Homelink buttons are convenient, as is the push button start and Smart Key hands free entry. The second row windows have pull-up sun screens. Tilt and slide moonroof, Smoke Chromed automatic headlights, fog lights, LED driving lights, Chromed roof rails, folding heated power side mirrors with puddle lamps, privacy side and rear hatch glass, blind spot monitors, wood grain trim and 3-zone automatic HVAC so everybody can feel comfortable while riding. The steering wheel has redundant controls for the radio and info screen functions. Don’t bother trying to speak an address into the NAV system, unless your address is on Main Street.
And if that isn’t enough, you should spring for the $1,525 Driver Tech Package. That adds the marvelous Pre-Collision System with Dynamic Cruise Control, Lane Departure Alert, and Automatic High Beam Headlights.
Move up to the Limited Platinum model, and you’ll add a rear Blu Ray entertainment system for the rear compartment, a panoramic moonroof, heated second row seats, and a heated steering wheel.
The base Highlander LE starts at $30,490, the LE Plus at $34,395, the XLE starts at $37,315, the Limited at $40,915, our Hybrid Limited at $47,870, and the full zoot Platinum Limited is $50,485.
So the Highlander doesn’t come cheaply, but if you need a large vehicle to move 7 or 8 passengers around in relative comfort, and still have some towing capability, this vehicle is a great option.
Ken “Hawkeye” Glassman has been a motor journalist for over 30 years, reviewing automobile, as well as motorcycle ride reviews and accessory reviews.
His car articles have appeared in Robb Report Magazine, Autoguide.com, Car-Revs-Daily.com and other media. His work has also appeared in Road Bike Magazine, Motorcycle Tour and Cruiser, SpeedTV.com, MotorcycleUSA.com and others.
As motorcycle columnist for The Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, the paper became the only major circulation newspaper in the country to have a separate weekly section devoted to motorcycles. Later he wrote a weekly column for Cyclefocus Magazine.