The Highlander Hybrid handles pretty much the way you’d expect a midsize crossover/SUV to handle, meaning it is tuned more for comfort and utility than performance. The hybrid powertrain is pretty transparent in use – other than the silence that greets you when you press the start button, there are few clues when you’re under way that you’re driving a hybrid vehicle. Acceleration, while not blazingly fast, is very good for a vehicle of this size and weight, and the power is delivered very smoothly thanks to the CVT transmission.
What to me seems the most prohibitive about the hybrid Highlander is its price premium (about $7000) over the non-hybrid version, which brings it into luxury-brand territory but without the cachet of a luxury brand. Still, while the hybrid may not make a lot of sense economically, there are probably many people for whom the satisfaction of driving an environmentally friendly vehicle is more important than the direct impact on their wallets.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
One of my gripes about hybrids is that you have to be very light on the throttle to keep the vehicle in EV mode, but Toyota’s system for the Highlander Hybrid — in addition to the new 2010 Prius — makes it a little easier. Punch the “ECON” button, and the accelerator pedal grows a little more resistant to your right foot. The “EV” button seems to really crank up the resistance, making it easier to keep the Highlander silently rolling along.
Sadly, these buttons don’t change the fact that in order to run the Highlander as an EV, you absolutely have to crawl away from stoplights. Depending on your locale, this may irritate your fellow drivers, as I witnessed on three separate occasions. Top speed in electric-only mode is only 25 mph, so those stretches of road near my apartment — posted at 30 mph and frequently driven at 35 mph by the locals – are impossible to traverse in an eco-friendly fashion.
Evan McCausland, Web Producer
It’s hard for me to understand why the Highlander Hybrid needs a V-6 engine as part of its gas/electric powertrain. Toyota says two electric motors and the V-6 are good for a combined rating of 270 hp, but the Highlander Hybrid has a tough time convincing you it’s fast. So why not cut your losses and stick in a larger four-cylinder (in the arena of 2.4 liters) for a couple more mpg? It also seems like a more efficient, front-wheel-drive model is a no-brainer. At least it would help reduce this “efficient” vehicle’s unacceptable 4600-pound weight.
Like Evan, I noted that it’s particularly hard to keep the Highlander Hybrid in electric mode, especially compared with the Prius and the Ford Fusion Hybrid. And, frustratingly, I was never able to activate the electric-vehicle mode. Even when I switched off every accessory in the vehicle, hitting the EV button caused the display to show “EV Mode not available at this time.” I tried on several different trips; after long and short drives; while rolling, stopped, and parked; and was never successful. I’m sure it has to do with the battery state of charge, but that doesn’t explain why the battery was never at the necessary level.
What did I like? The transition when the engine turns on and off is excellent and virtually imperceptible. Some people may also appreciate the Highlander Hybrid’s 3500-pound towing capacity (this is the justification for the V-6, I suppose). The yellowy blonde wood in our tester, however, was rather unattractive, reminding me of a decade sometime prior to my birth.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
The Toyota Highlander Hybrid is not a bad choice if you absolutely need a car that seats more than five and want to be green. In fact, it stands alone in the family-sized hybrid SUV category, unless of course you have another $10,000 to $15,000 to step up to the big GM hybrid SUVs. The V-6 does seem somewhat pointless especially since, as Eric mentioned, it doesn’t move this car with any urgency. But if the car is loaded with seven people and their gear, it probably needs all the horses it can get.
It’s too bad, though, that in the Highlander Hybrid, fun and frugality are mutually exclusive. The steering, despite being nicely weighted, provides little feedback, and the brake pedal response is equally unsatisfying. The lack of feel combined with a pedal travel distance of what feels like less than two inches, makes slowing gradually to a stop interesting. The brakes work fine, but I don’t like the way the pedal response.
It may not be pretty or exciting but what Toyota does well in the Highlander Hybrid is cram tons of safety and hybrid technology into practical, user-friendly package.
Jennifer Misaros, Production Editor
I agree with Eric that Toyota should just slip a four-cylinder in here and go for a big fuel economy number. That would provide some much-needed price and performance differentiation with the Lexus RX450h. In fact, I’m going to make a decision right now and say that all Toyota hybrids should maximize efficiency while all Lexus hybrids should maximize performance.
As it is, I’d have a hard time justifying $45,000 on the Toyota over the nicer-looking, better-performing Lexus unless I really needed that third row. It’s also worth noting that this particular model is playing dangerously close to Audi Q7 TDI price territory. Granted, test cars often come loaded with an absurd amount of optional equipment, but no Highlander should even sniff $50,000.
Having said all that, there’s still nothing wrong with the Highlander itself. As always, it’s a supremely quiet, solid vehicle with an attractive interior. As others have noted, the hybrid powertrain rarely goes into EV mode – I experienced it only when pulling out of a parking spot – but it’s worth remembering we’re driving in arctic temperatures with the heat cranked on high.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid LTD
Base price (with destination): $41,820
Price as tested: $48,385
3.3L V-6 engine
Hybrid synergy drive technology
Continuously variable transmission
Electric power steering
Vehicle stability control
Rear backup camera
AM/FM in-dash 6 CD changer
XM satellite radio
Leather seating surfaces
Heated front seats
Hill start assist
Tow prep package
19-inch alloy wheels
Options on this vehicle:
Voice activated touch screen – $2775
Rear-seat DVD entertainment system – $1780
Power tilt/slide moonroof – $850
CFC-free auto rear air conditioning system – $785
Front auto dual zone climate control – $375
Key options not on vehicle:
27 / 25 / 26 mpg
Size: 3.3L V-6 with EV mode
Horsepower: 208 hp @ 5600 rpm
Torque: 212 lb-ft @ 3600 rpm
Battery power: 68 hp
Hybrid system net power: 270 hp
Weight: 4640 lbs
19-inch 10-spoke alloy wheels
P245/55R19 Toyo A20 Open Country all-season tires