Middle-market SUVs might not set the heart racing, but just one model within this ubiquitous SUV segment means more—more volume, more customers—than the latest hypercar that 100 people might actually buy. Realize this and you awaken to the far greater statistical relevance of the plain old SUV. SUVs make the automotive world go ’round far more than exotics.
Couple that ubiquity with a hybrid drivetrain and it starts to get interesting. Hybridize a small car and you might increase fuel efficiency from 40 to 50MPG. But many more people drive big 15MPG SUVs than small efficient cars, and a hybrid SUV that delivers 20MPG actually involves a bigger improvement from the starting point. The stakes are higher.
Which brings us to Toyota’s Highlander. A mainstay of that ever-present strain of suburban SUVs, the Highlander offers a luxuriously impressive inside and comes close to elegance on the outside. Where Lexus has adorned all its recent cars and SUVs with the sharp-edged—and polarizing—corporate “spindle” grille and highly angular overall styling, it’s possible that the Highlander gets you most of the way to Lexus luxury but without the fussiness. Actually, it’s more than possible.
What does the hybrid system add?
Toyota has grown the Highlander since its 2001 debut; the company now offers a third seating row in the back. Based on a shared architecture with Camry, Avalon, Lexus GS sedan and, most significantly, the Lexus RX SUVs, the current Highlander still comes in a four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive variant. However, that version is no more frugal than the V6 front-wheel-drive model (20/25 city/highway vs. 19/25 city/highway), and the V6 offers a much happier drivetrain for the $1,500 price differential between the two ($31,430 vs. $32,955 including the required destination charge). Relatively speaking, the least expensive Hybrid version—$48,810—is a humongous jump; here we see Toyota’s strategy of loading up hybrid iterations with otherwise-optional extras.
The Hybrid’s combined net power rating of 280HP (209kW) and 215lb-ft (291Nm) of torque comes from a 231HP (172kW), 3.5-liter V6 coupled to two electric motors (one driving the front wheels, one aft) supplied with up to 45kW (60HP) by a nickel-metal hydride battery pack. (Toyota hasn’t released the battery’s capacity, but the similar Lexus RX Hybrid uses a 2kWh pack.) As with most hybrids, a continuously variable transmission gathers everything together downstream.
Our test car was also equipped with Toyota’s all-wheel-drive AWD-i system. This drives the front wheels most of the time, but if they start to spin or the driver turns the steering wheel more than a few degrees with strong power demand, the system engages the rear wheels. (In some cases, it can also do so before the fronts begin slipping.) Toyota says AWD-i also enables greater regenerative braking, capturing energy from all four wheels rather than just the two normally driven ones.
What’s it like to live with?
In everyday use, the hybrid powertrain puts up no fuss. The chassis—struts up front and unequal-length control arms in the rear—absorbs bumps, mutes wind noise, tire thrum, and even things like road construction well beyond what you’d expect from a non-luxury brand. However, demand full power and the engine revs up against the CVT and parks it at whatever RPMs your right foot demands. This creates a mildly annoying, monotonous drone as the car gathers up steam. It’s a remarkable feat of engineering that CVTs can transmit this much power given their very meager beginnings about 20 years ago when they were barely able to cope with 70 or 80HP. Then again, no one’s going drag racing with a Highlander Hybrid, so 99 percent of this drivetrain’s life will be spent shy of 3,000 RPM and half-throttle.
We can’t be as forgiving in the economy department, though. Granted, this test was conducted at between 8,000 and 13,000 feet of elevation in the mountains of Colorado, but the 24.4MPG average we saw over the test period didn’t meet the EPA combined label value of 28MPG by a long shot, and we were hardly hot-footing the Highlander around. That’s still 22 percent (4.4MPG) better than the non-hybrid with all-wheel-drive, but it’s also 13 percent poorer than its official combined rating. This makes the Highlander Hybrid’s single biggest feature—its powertrain—also its biggest question, especially considering a near-$6,000 premium over the equivalent non-hybrid.
Regenerative braking systems have to perform a complex juggling act between the motor-generator unit—which slows a wheel, recovering some of its kinetic energy and sending it to the battery—and the traditional brakes. That means that the brake pedal feel is sometimes curious. But Toyota has vast experience here (in part honed at Le Mans with its hybrid racing program). With the Highlander Hybrid, there is no awkwardness. Like the fourth-generation Prius we tested earlier this year, you’d never guess it was a hybrid from the brake pedal, commendable given that there are other hybrid cars on the market that still suffer from this problem.
The latest wave of driver-assistance technology—like radar-based dynamic cruise control, collision warning, blind-spot warning, lane-departure warning, and rear cross-traffic alert—all come with the Platinum trim level of our tester, as well they should, given the $51,385 price.
Inside, there’s seating for six, including the small third row which is shy in most dimensions compared to the Highlander’s chief rivals like Honda’s Pilot and the GM trio made up of the Chevy Traverse/GMC Acadia/Buick Enclave. There’s also a shelf below the dash for various personal items like mobile phones and wallets, with a trap door that allows a charging cable to pass through. Lined with a soft, pliable surface, those items won’t slide around either. Nice touch.
Toyota has done some crafty packaging, too. Despite a third row, the aft-mounted hybrid battery and rear diff and half-shafts take away no cargo capacity at all, offering the same 13.6 cubic feet of storage space with the third row up and 42 cubic feet with the third row stowed behind the second row as in the regular Highlander.
Toyota will update the 2017 Highlander with a direct-injected V6 and an eight-speed automatic transmission, but the Hybrid is not likely to receive them. That won’t change the Hybrid picture, though, which remains a compelling, quiet, eminently useful (if expensive) player in the middle SUV market.