We spend a week in the fuel-efficient version of the three-row midsize crossover SUV from Toyota.
Small third row seat
Hard plastic trim bits
2016 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
Assembled in Princeton, Indiana, the Highlander Hybrid is Toyota's Camry-based three-row midsize crossover currently offered in two trim levels that also features a standard, on-demand, all-wheel-drive system.
Up front the Highlander Hybrid features an aggressive grill (because it's a hybrid, featuring the Toyota emblem outlined in blue) flanked by large headlamp housings. Prominent wheel arches, an upper character line, and a sculpted lower character line define its sides, while clear, protruding, horizontal tail lamp lenses and a large upper spoiler dominate the back.
Inside, the Highlander Hybrid comes with its own interpretation of Toyota’s current horizontal-themed dashboard layout that features an 8-inch touchscreen. The icons are large and the system is one of the most intuitive we’ve used, although due to the sheer expanse of the dashboard it can be a bit of a stretch to reach the screen. Overall fit and finish is excellent and the upper dash is comprised of a slick one-piece cover. Lower down, however, we couldn't help but notice the low-rent hard plastic trim pieces.
The instrumentation is clear, easy to read and all the controls are intuitive, while the touchscreen features a large font size for easy reading. The radio has an on/off button as well as one for station tuning, while major functions of the system are controlled by three buttons flanking either side of the screen.
Front seat passengers enjoy a generous amount of head, shoulder and leg room. The steering wheel both tilts and telescopes and the heated leather front seats are both firm and supportive with just the right amount of side bolstering. The 10-way driver's seat on our Limited (the passengers is also 10-way) featured a power extendable lower cushion for additional thigh support.
Occupants of the two center captain's chairs will also find plenty of head, shoulder and hip room. Both feature inboard armrests and fore-aft adjustment. In back, up to three rear-seat passengers will find a nearly flat floor, along with plenty of room, featuring high-sitting and well-shaped seats along with easy ingress and egress. For longer trips this row is better off left for children, especially considering the fact that leg room is lower by one inch in the hybrid versus gasoline engine-equipped models.
Cargo volume behind third seat is 13.8 cubic feet. Fold the third row flat and that expands to 43.2 cubic feet, while folding the second row reveals 83.7 cubic feet. Another nice touch: the rear window can be opened independently from the rear hatch, making loading small packages and transporting longer cargo easier.
Despite its large size, the view out the front and sides is very good. And while the view out the back and three quarters is somewhat limited, there is a small window between the C- and D-pillars while all Highlander Hybrid models come with a standard backup camera.
Under the hood
The Highlander Hybrid features a 3.5-liter V6 that produces a 231 horsepower and 215lb.-ft. of torque. It's augmented by a front motor generator (driving the front wheels) that generates 167 horsepower and 247 lb.-ft. of torque, as well as a smaller rear motor generator (that drives the rear wheels) that produces 68 horsepower and 103 lb.-ft. of torque. Combined, hybrid system net horsepower is 280.
The Highlander Hybrid gets an EPA estimated 27/28/28 city/highway/combined. Our own observed fuel economy was 26.7 mpg in city driving – excellent for an AWD vehicle that tips the scales to the tune of 4,861 lbs. But that excellence also comes at a price, as the hybrid sells at a $5,495 premium over the non-hybrid model.
On the road
At close to two-and-a-half tons, the Highlander Hybrid’s handling is hardly sporty – no surprise there. But it does negotiate corners with very little body lean. The steering has a nice weight to it, although there's not much in the way of feedback to the driver.
On the other hand, minor road imperfections as well as larger potholes are soaked up with ease. The brakes are easy to modulate, they offer plenty of feedback to the driver and the regen system does its job invisibly in the background. The whole thing also brings the Highlander Hybrid to a halt very efficiently.
On the freeway, the Highlander Hybrid feels well planted and it's hardly affected by crosswinds or the occasional grooved pavement. You have a good sense of where you are on the road and we never found ourselves in the situation of having to compensate for over-correct the steering system.
Its horsepower-to-weight ratio doesn't encourage hard acceleration, but merging into traffic and passing at freeway speeds was never an issue.
Interior sound levels are also very good. The cabin of Highlander Hybrid is very quiet in around town driving and there's very little wind and only a bit of tire noise evident even at freeway speeds.
2016 Toyota Highlander Hybrid prices
Prices for the 2016 Highlander Hybrid lineup range from $48,770 for the Limited trim level to over $56,000 for a Highlander Hybrid in Limited Platinum trim with the full range of port- and dealer-installed accessories.
Our Silver Sky metallic Limited tester had a base price of $47,870. $1,810 for a rear seat BluRay DVD entertainment system with 9-inch display and 2 wireless headphones and a $1,525 driver technology package with a pre-collision system, dynamic radar cruise control, lane departure alert and automatic high beam headlights as well as $900 for delivery, processing and handling, brought the total MSRP to $452,105.
The Bottom Line
We found that there's a lot to like about Toyota's latest Highlander Hybrid. Considering its size (always a consideration), handling, although far from agile, is well-controlled. In addition, the cargo room is impressive and its fuel economy is notable for a vehicle this size.
On the flip side, its steering lacks feedback, the ride is weighted towards cushiness rather than responsiveness and, let's face it, unlike a minivan the third row is really only comfortable for small children.
Taking that all into consideration, it's easy to see why shoppers looking for quality and reliability in a large, fuel-efficient people mover should put the Highlander Hybrid at the top of their lists. We're just not sure that, in an era of $2-a-gallon gas, the $5,500 premium over the gasoline model will bring with it many new buyers.