Highlander purrs even more smoothly as hybrid

John Gilbert

Highlander Hybrid posed at sunset to show off impressive array of LED lights. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Highlander Hybrid posed at sunset to show off impressive array of LED lights. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Smooth leather front buckets are power operated, heated and cooled in the Highlander Hybrid. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Smooth leather front buckets are power operated, heated and cooled in the Highlander Hybrid. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Large signature grille draws in important cooling air for the hybrid system. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Large signature grille draws in important cooling air for the hybrid system. Photo credit: John Gilbert

Just when it seemed that we might have forgotten all about the Toyota Highlander, amid Toyota’s sea of SUVs, here it comes again in the form of the Highlander Hybrid Limited. And it looks as classy as it is large in Blizzard Pearl, which looks particularly appropriate in Duluth, Minnesota, with an underscore of snow on the ground.

With all the discussion about the takeover of the U.S. auto market by Sport-Utility Vehicles, it seems natural that every profit-seeking company makes as many of the trucks and spinoffs as possible, to fill their share of the segment.

Then there’s Toyota. The company has become so enormous in the auto world that its reputation is solid throughout the U.S., and consumers know they are pretty sure to be investing in a vehicle that will perform capably and be as close to trouble-free as is possible with such a mechanical device.

Blizzard Pearl looks at home on a snowy road through the woods. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Blizzard Pearl looks at home on a snowy road through the woods. Photo credit: John Gilbert

My thought is for Christmas, Toyota should have come up with a parlor game, sort of like Monopoly, or Clue, or Trivia. Only this one would have all participants see if they can name all the Toyota-built SUVs. If they get them all, you could go to another page and see how many Lexus versions they could also name.

Toyota also is at the forefront of the hybrid world, although competition is getting ferocious there after Toyota pretty much had a private shooting gallery with the Prius and all its models.

So it was only natural that Toyota would take its considerable hybrid heritage and apply the technology to its SUVs. So after dabbling successfully to make a hybrid compact RAV4, Toyota has moved to the larger Highlander. There are, of course, more Toyota SUVs, with the 4Runner, the FWD-only C-HR, the still larger Sequoia, and the still-still larger Land Cruiser, not to mention the pickup siblings, Tacoma and Tundra.

But for now, we’ll talk about the Highlander, which lists for $47,214 for one like the loaded test vehicle. Since the larger Toyota SUVs can easily range up to $70,000 or $90,000, the sticker price is a good deal for all that is included.

When it first came out, I wondered why any company would need to plug an SUV into the lineup above the RAV4 and Pathfinder and beneath the Land Cruiser, but Toyota does things its way, and the Highlander has become a steadfast member of the Toyota family.

Folding the third row bench seat flat increases the storage room from adequate to huge. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Folding the third row bench seat flat increases the storage room from adequate to huge. Photo credit: John Gilbert

If you didn’t know the Sequoia and Land Cruiser existed, you would probably be very happy with the spaciousness of the Highlander, which has three rows of seats, to accommodate seven occupants and still have storage room behind. The second row on the test vehicle was a pair of captain’s chair buckets, and about the time you wonder how they count seven for occupants, you flip the easy lever and the bucket flips forward and tilts up on its front axis, creating an easy step into the third row, which has three positions — a 2-2-3 configuration that is for occupants, even if it does sound like a sopisticated football defensive scheme.

The seats are covered with perforated leather, the better to heat and cool the front pair of occupants, and the power device goes 12 ways with the driver’s seat, which also gets lumbar support, and four ways with the front passenger. The second-row captain’s chairs and the third row’s 60-40 bench can all be reclined to aid with getting the perfect comfort and roominess.

Flip and tilt second-row bucket allows easy access to the third row of seats in the 7-passenger Highlander Hybrid. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Flip and tilt second-row bucket allows easy access to the third row of seats in the 7-passenger Highlander Hybrid. Photo credit: John Gilbert

As vehicles continue to become larger with each generation, the Highlander seems bigger than I remember it, but it has all the required power to accelerate from a side road or entry ramp.

The base engine is a 2.7-liter 4-cylinder with 185 horsepower, while the test model has the optional 3.5-liter V6 with 295 horsepower and 263 foot-pounds of torque, but the tester had the additional boost of the hybrid’s battery-pack system, increasing horsepower to 306 when operating in conjuncton with the V6.

The powertrain is impressive enough that I had driven the Highlander Hybrid for several days before I realized it has a CVT — continuously variable transmission.

That power enhancement gives the Highlander Hybrid 3,500-pound towing capacity.

Naturally, Toyota’s full suite of safety stuff is included, above nd beyond the electronically controlled all-wheel drive system. Lane-depatrure notification and assist, steering assist, pedestrian detection within the pre-collision technology, radar-guided cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert, plus hill-start assist all are standard.

The Entune JBL audio system sends out an impressive amount of sound through 12 speakers, and it is just the latest in a seeming never-ending improvement in on-board listening. I also give Toyota a gold star for including a CD player highj on the center stack. Maybe sales of CDs are down, and fading away, but everybody who ever bought a CD still has CDs, and they are an impressive way to cover a trip, if you get tired of satellite radio. Many manufacturers have quit equipping their vehicles with CDs now, and I don’t know anyone who is disposing of their library.

The EPA fuel economy estimate for the Highlander Hybrid is 29 miles per gallon city, 27 highway, and I easily topped 26 mpg on every drive downtown, winter or not. I haven’t lost my preference for smaller, more compact and agile SUVs, but the Highlander “drives small” and delivers a lot for the expense.