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Toyota's Highlander is a delightfully appliance-like CUV that packs a lot into a relatively compact package. Thoughtful touches for hauling around your pride are tucked away inside the attractive sheetmetal, and anyone who needs three rows of seats could likely spend gas money better elsewhere. The hybrid badges on the flanks hint at an EPA-estimated 31/27 mpg citiy/highway, and they also give you stylish automotive bauble status amongst residents of HumDrumBurbia. Hybrids are about more than making a statement, and the Highlander's Hybrid Synergy Drive system could help you reduce your CO2 emissions and use less fuel, so you do get something for the premium price.

full review after the jump


Although it's modest in external stature, the Highlander Hybrid puts up some big numbers. Curb weight is a hefty 4,000 pounds, with the equivalent of 268 horsepower for motivation. The bottom line is equally portly, commanding a $7,000 premium over a base Highlander, and a still sizable $4,300 over a Sport, which is more similarly equipped. Saving money on fuel is not the only reason to purchase a hybrid, but it's a common motivating factor. $7,000 buys a whole lot of gasoline. Our tester started at $34,430 and added on the Extra Value Package for $1,770. The Extra Value Package amounts to a power moonroof and a forceful JBL Premium audio system with 6-disc capacity, an auxiliary input, and even a cassette player. Also included are a color-keyed wing for the liftgate, and foglamps. An additional $199 added a set of carpeted floor mats and a matching cargo liner, and a further $49 went to a cargo net to keep things from flying around. When all was said and done, the price had bloated out to $36,633 after a $420 discount. That's gonna leave a mark.


So, what do you get for Mercedes money? Well, for starters, you get a pleasant-driving trucklet. Pleasant doesn't imply engaging, but not everyone gets off on carving curves. Thanks to the torque delivery of electric motors, the drivetrain has a punchy charm, and it can make the Highlander scoot around with authority. The ride is smooth and well behaved, though the higher center of gravity that comes with the CUV form factor doesn't do you any favors avoiding crosswinds or handling sharply. Even if you wanted to carve corners, body roll reminds you of the phrase "moment of polar inertia." The electric power steering is silent as a mime, with artificially light effort, but there were no nasty clunks or bumps transmitted through the thin steering wheel rim. Even though the steering's not talkative, it gets credit for slick operation.

Speaking of slick, the Hybrid Synergy Drive system is smoother than A Night At The Roxbury. With all the componentry hanging underneath and plenty of computerized orchestration, you'd suspect there might be some discordant notes from the powertrain. Not to worry, Toyota has really fine tuned the HSD system. There's sometimes a discernible shudder when the engine starts and stops, and the electric motor can add a sudden boost to power delivery during part throttle running, but that's it. Normal drivers won't notice much except seamless handoffs between the engine and electric motor. Pedal feel from the braking system is impressively lifelike, though there can be a discongruity between the amount of braking you expect and the amount you actually get. We found our gap closing up a bit faster than we thought it should at times. Not to worry, a harder squeeze on the pedal calls up plenty of braking power, and once you get used to it, it's a non-issue.


Hybrid driving is easy to love. The first time you sidle up to a stoplight in silence, the soundtrack of the world is enthralling. If anything, a hybrid reaffirms your love of your environment just by demonstrating it to you. Rustling leaves, early morning symphonies provided by birds, conversations you can overhear in the car next to you; it's easy to revel when the engine's not drowning out everything. Where this technology really shines are situations that are the most wasteful. Traffic jams are no sweat, you sit in air conditioned, battery-powered bliss. It's also nice to know you won't burn up a half gallon of fuel sitting in the drive-thru line.

Paying attention to the world around you is a good way to avoid setting your gaze upon the interior. The design of the dash is pleasant in an organic, curvy way. Most of the materials in front of you look and feel like the quality parts they are, and the outboard dash vents are slickly integrated into the doors, lending a bit of cockpit feel to the environs. The silver trim on the center stack and console raises longevity concerns when you consider the abuse kids can unleash on a vehicle interior, but at least it's not fake wood. The switchgear and controls are easily deciphered and operate smoothly, though the HVAC controls varied widely in feel from knob to knob. The driver's side front window is also the only one that has an auto up/down function, which would be a treat to find on all the windows. The gauges are straightforward and handsome, though we found them too bright at night, and couldn't dim them enough. The rest of the dash would be too dark, and the gauges would still be a beacon in the night. Our favorite aspect of the dash was the geek-out display that shows where power is flowing. We tried to keep the arrow pointed toward the battery, and not light the engine icon, if possible. You'd be surprised at the distance you can tool around on the batteries if you aren't worried about getting killed by people behind you.

Our biggest interior gripe is the seats. They're squishy, not very well bolstered, and the fabric is unpleasant to the touch. Leather or vinyl seats are a better match with little ones, as they won't stain as easily, and cleanup is a snap. Getting comfortable in the Highlander's chairs can be a challenge, and you may never attain "just right." No extremities got tingly during a long drive, but the seats led to more fidgeting than the standard caffeine buzz brings on. This is not the car for Sciatica sufferers.

Toyota did design the passenger compartment well for functionality. There's lots of storage cubbies, like deep door pockets and a large bin in the center console. Passengers in the third-row dungeon get their own HVAC control, which may or may not be a good idea, given the median age of people who will fit in that tiny seat. The switch won't operate unless another button is activated by the driver, though, ensuring that incessant knob twisting won't be interesting.

Finding a third row of seats in a vehicle the size of the Highlander is surprising. It's not a very convenient or functional arrangement, but at least Toyota can claim seven places. The seat faces forward, so access is difficult, requiring a climb over the back of a folded second row seat. The seat is also very low to the floor and obviously only suitable for children. Additionally, when up, the cargo hold is reduced quite a bit, making it difficult to carry the stuff that inevitably goes along with seven passengers.

Foregoing the 3rd row leaves a load area that's commodious. The square roofline doesn't impinge on the interior space, so there's plenty of room for large items. The second row seats also fold flat, increasing your Toyota-stuffing abilities. It's all quite useful, and the seats are quick and intuitive to operate. The 60/40 second row seats allow you to tailor the Highlander to your cargo. There are several tie-down points for bungee cords or the cargo net, so you can secure your loads, and there's also a nice roll-up cargo cover to keep prying eyes away from the family heirloom concertina in the back.

So, how does it do? We did eke out 30.8 MPG on the 90-mile daily commute, which is a mix of city and highway. On a weekend highway jaunt, the best we could manage was 26.5 mpg over 350 miles. That's half an MPG off the Highlander's rated highway economy of 27 MPG. If a lot of highway driving is a regular part of your commute, the Highlander may disappoint. Despite our varied mpg findings, avoiding pumping out needless CO2 is another aspect of how hybrids make a lot of sense. The Highlander will best its petro-fueled brethren in stop and go and other situations that cause long periods of idling.

The overall driving experience of the Highlander Hybrid is not one of hoonage and apex clipping. As a family car for people who care more about getting their passel of offspring carted around, it drives fine. The high level of complex technology is unobtrusive, and while dispassionate, it never made a misstep. We're not sold on the CUV form factor, nor the need for the weight and complexity of the additional motor for 4WDi versus a full set of good snow tires, but there are regions that need more traction than two wheels can provide. We'd love to see a return of the Camry wagon carrying the HSD drivetrain, the lower ride height would pay aerodynamic dividends, while the driving experience would be even tighter. The Highlander Hybrid has a friendly demeanor, and if you must have a hybrid in order to sleep well at night, it'll do the trick.

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