A week spent in the high mileage midsize crossover SUV from Toyota

Pros:

Fuel economy
Interior room
Versatility

Cons:

Plain styling
Steering feedback
Handling

2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited

Finishing up

Back in March Toyota unveiled the third generation of its Highlander midsize SUV at the 2013 New York Auto Show. Earlier this year we had the chance to review the outgoing 2013 Highlander Limited and now we'll take a look at the hybrid version (the 2014 models will be available early next year).

2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited

For starters, although it might seem that the Highlander has been around for nearly forever in Toyota's lineup, this Camry-based Ute is one of the newer nameplates, having been around only since 2001. The hybrid variation, it turns out, is even newer. Unlike its platform-mate the Lexus RX 350, which carries the cool Toyota Harrier nameplate in its home country, we much prefer the name "Highlander" to what this model is called in Japan – the "Kluger".
2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

The Toyota Highlander was unveiled at the 2000 New York Auto Show and went on sale in January of 2001. Its hybrid variant followed three years later when it was shown for the first time at the 2004 North American International Auto Show, going on sale in July of 2005 as a 2006 model.

While non-hybrid Highlanders are assembled at the same Princeton, Indiana manufacturing facility that builds the larger body-on-frame Sequoia SUV, hybrid versions including our tester are currently being built in Japan. According to sources at Toyota, the manufacturer is currently in the process of moving production of the hybrid to Indiana. This means that when the move is completed, all Highlander models will be manufactured exclusively in the U.S.
2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Although all Highlander crossovers sport a three-row interior layout, the hybrid version is differentiated by its single drivetrain option: a unique version of Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system.

Translating this to the Highlander Hybrid, up front the system consists of a 3.5-liter V6 gasoline engine that produces 231 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 215 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,800 rpm along with a 650V AC motor generator rated at 167 horsepower and 247 lb.-ft. of torque. The engine is mated to an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission.

In back, there's a separate 650V AC motor generator that has a maximum output of 68 horsepower and 96 lb.-ft. of torque.
2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Altogether, total system output adds up to 280 net horsepower. Separating the front- and rear-wheel drive systems allows Toyota to eliminate both a driveshaft and power-transfer gearing. In the case of the Highlander, the system electronically varies front and rear torque distribution depending on traction conditions.

Hybrids are rated by the EPA at an estimated 28/28/28 city/highway/combined fuel economy while our observed fuel economy was a surprising 30.5 mpg in primarily suburban driving. This is especially impressive considering this Highlander's considerable heft – 4,762 pounds in Limited trim.

Like the rest of the Highlander lineup, the hybrid features four-wheel independent suspension using MacPherson struts up front and a dual-link strut setup in the rear. All Highlander models also come with a corner-braking feature that limits brake pressure on inside wheels during cornering to help enhance control through turns.
2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Exterior

At the risk of repeating ourselves, since the new and improved model has already broken cover, we'll cut Toyota a little slack when it comes to the current-gen Highlander's styling. Again, being generous, it's difficult picking out a 2013 Highlander Hybrid – despite its "we don't need no stinkin' " blue badges - in a sea of similarly-sized SUVs in a crowded parking lot.

Aside from a pair of clear narrow headlamp enclosures that cantilever over the outward edges of the front fascia, there's little else - including a two bar grille and smallish lower air intake - to differentiate the Highlander from a slew of other large people haulers.
2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
The plain sides also don't add much to the mix, although things get interesting with a pronounced shoulder line just below the massive D-pillars.

In back, things once again revert to plain and tall although there is one particularly nice touch: the rear window opens independently allowing access to the rear storage area without having to open the massive tailgate.
2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Interior

Inside, there's little to differentiate the Hybrid from more proletarian Highlanders other than a model-specific metal scuff plate that greets you as you open the front doors and a shift gate that it shares with its four-cylinder-equipped sibling that lacks the V6's manumatic function detents. While the interior surfaces are nicely grained, most are hard to the touch. At the same time the light and dark gray surfaces contrast nicely and are offset by better than average-looking faux wood trim.

Overall fit and finish is excellent and, like its Lexus platform-mate, it also features a slick one-piece upper dashboard cover. The steering wheel both tilts and telescopes. Leather heated front seats are both firm and generally supportive with just the right amount of side bolstering while the 8-way driver's seat on our Limited trim (the passengers is 4-way) featured an adjustable thigh support, not something normally found on vehicles in this class.
2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Instrumentation is clear and easy to read, with the smooth console and center-stack buttons and controls being very intuitive. Like its non-hybrid brethren, the various buttons and knobs on the center stack are not only backlit and within easy reach of the driver, they're also good-size and fly in the face of current interior design convention that sacrifices usefulness on the altar of style.

Front seat passengers enjoy a generous amount of head, shoulder and leg room. The driver's view out the front and sides is excellent.  Our Limited model also came equipped with a backup camera which is a good thing because rear quarter visibility is often impaired by the wide C-pillars.
2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Center seat occupants not only get plenty of the same kind of room in their reclining captain's chairs, both with inboard arm rests and fore-aft adjustment, this setup also comes with another interesting feature: a removable center console. If a third person needs to sit in the center row the console can be removed and, hidden in a compartment below the front console is a third seat (narrow and not nearly as comfortable) that can be inserted and locked between the two outboard chairs. The aforementioned console can then be stored in the now vacant compartment.
2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Like many three-row utilities, the third row is best designated as a preserve for small children or folded for additional cargo space. Access is only from the passenger side and there's just 29.9 inches of leg room and with the rear seats up, the headrests steal much of the rear window's available real estate. In addition, cargo volume behind third seat is a parsimonious 10.3 cubic feet.

With the rear seats folded that expands to a more generous 42.3 cubic feet. That transforms into a cavernous 95.4 cubic feet with both the rear and center captain's chairs down.
2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
On the road

On the road the hybrid accelerates every bit as well as its non-hybrid V6 counterpart.  The cabin is refreshingly quiet even at freeway speeds and it tracks nicely down the road. Suspension compliance is also excellent with body lean being well controlled through the corners, especially for a vehicle of this size and heft.

But that, unfortunately, is pretty much where any dynamic goodness ends. Overall handling is mediocre at best and there's very little in the way of feedback through the steering wheel. Braking on the hybrid, however, was not nearly as communicative as on the conventional model. The regen function kicks in fairly quickly and aggressively, making it difficult to effectively modulate the brake pedal.
2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Equipment and pricing

Ordering a 2013 Highlander Hybrid is fairly simple. There are just two trim levels, base and Limited. Base model customers can opt for a leather premium package (that includes heated seats Bluetooth connectivity and a moonroof) while both base and Limited buyers can check the box for a rear-seat DVD entertainment system.

All Highlander Hybrids come with Toyota's Display Audio featuring a 6.1-inch touch screen that includes iPod connectivity, hands-free phone capability and Bluetooth technology, backup monitor, power windows, locks and mirrors plus air conditioning, cruise control, 3.5-inch multi-information display, 7-passenger seating, projector beam headlamps, privacy glass, keyless entry, roof rails, fog lamps, the middle center-stow seat, intermittent front wipers and a variable rear wiper, a lift-up glass hatch, hybrid blue tinted headlamp and tail lamp bezels, and 17-inch alloy wheels with a full-size spare.
2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
The Limited trim level adds 19-inch alloy wheels, a power moonroof, power liftgate, perforated leather seats (heated in front) steering wheel and shift knob, leatherette 50/50 split third row seat, an auto-dimming inside rearview mirror, power heated and folding outside mirrors, 3-zone automatic climate control, cargo area cover and wood-grain style interior trim. Also included is Toyota's Display Audio with navigation along with JBL speakers, XM satellite radio and HD radio with iTunes tagging.

New car prices, including an $845 destination and handling charge, begin at $41,015 for a base model and tops out at $49,722 for an optioned-with-all-the-goodies Limited all-wheel-drive example – a figure, coincidentally, that precisely matched that of our Shoreline Blue Pearl tester.
2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
That figure was reached by adding the rear seat DVD package ($1,760), mudguards ($99), all-weather mats ($145), cargo spider net ($49), cargo cover ($225) and cross bars ($229) to its base price of $46,370.00.
2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
The Bottom Line

It's easy to see why buyers pick the Highlander Hybrid. It's got lot going for it – great fuel economy, a quiet ride and a comfortable, spacious interior. It could stand to have more style (but a new model is due out next year) and we're not really enamored of the lack of feedback from the hybrid's regenerative brake system.

But the fact is that these issues, along with the fact that Highlanders could use a more responsive steering setup and more agile handling, will probably be overlooked by most  buyers looking for Toyota's legendary quality and reliability in a large, fuel efficient, people mover.

2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited