The drive home on my first night with the Highlander Hybrid was a slow one, as a couple of accidents caused all of my available routes home to be choked with traffic. It did give me an opportunity, however, to notice the instant fuel-economy readout on the dash -- it was showing 27.2 mpg, which is very impressive for a vehicle that can carry up to seven people. And the fact that the Highlander is a people-mover was important to me, because I was scheduled to ferry four of my neighbors (and fellow book-club members) to our monthly meeting that evening.
It turned out that the Highlander had no problem accommodating five adults. The rearmost row was in the lowered position when I got into the car, but it was simple to raise -- one pull of the strap at the back of each side of the split rear row and the seats were ready to go. I was a little worried about access to the third row, but the second-row seatback can be pushed forward and the seat slides forward, so my rearmost passenger (who is slender but still adult-size) had no problem getting back there.
The rest of the time I spend with the Highlander was a mix of city and freeway driving, during which the hybrid crossover proved to be capable but not really engaging. There's plenty of power for cruising at speeds in excess of the 70 mph speed limit if you're in a hurry, but there's nothing here that makes you want to drive in a more spirited manner just for the fun of it. On a styling note, he Highlander's exterior styling is mostly unobjectionable and a little bland, but I find the protruding plastic over the headlamps just plain odd.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
I didn't carry any passengers with the Highlander but I did use it to transport a wheelbarrow and some landscape drainage tubing. The rear seats were easy to fold and I was pleasantly surprised by the Highlander's expansive cargo area. Lift-over is low enough even for the vertically challenged. The third row folds down completely creating a flat load floor in the rearmost portion of the cargo area while the second row isn't quite as flexible: it doesn't lay totally horizontal. Unfortunately for my purposes, the rearward angle created by the second row was a problem: on every takeoff the wheelbarrow was apt to slide backward and hit the hatch door; the stopper I put behind the wheelbarrow to help prevent it from sliding wouldn't stay put on the angled floor, either.
It didn't help my plight that the Highlander's regenerative brakes are extremely difficult to modulate, so bringing the car to a smooth, gradual stop was virtually impossible. The rest of the driving experience is much more serene. The engine is exceptionally quiet and smooth and acceleration both in town and on the interstate is very good for a 4600-pound hybrid. The Highlander is certainly not made for corner carving but it gets from point A to point B in a supremely refined manner.
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms
Wow, I was not expecting this cheap interior. The design and fit of the panels is acceptable, but the materials, particularly those on the center console and lower half of the dash, really irk me. They're hard, poorly grained, and generally cheap and dreary looking. This may be an annoyance in a $30,000 Highlander, but it's offset by the overall value and utility of the vehicle. In a $46,497 Highlander, it could be a deal breaker.
The price and interior overshadow what is otherwise a well-executed vehicle. It's roomy, comfortable, and exhibits road manners well within the midsize crossover bell curve. It's also hard to fault as a hybrid. The brakes are a bit spongy, but otherwise, there's not much here that screams hybrid version, which I suspect is a good thing for the practicality-minded Highlander buyer. Of course, the person who's thinking entirely in terms of practicality will have a hard time justifying a $9000 premium over a similarly equipped gas-only Highlander. At some point, a hybrid has to appeal to a customer's right brain, and this car, with its bland design and mediocre interior just doesn't do it.
David Zenlea, Assisant Editor
I realize Toyotas are no longer inexpensive -- particularly the trucks and SUVs -- and I know a hybrid powertrain exacts its own hefty penalty, but I was astounded to see the sticker price on this Highlander was nearly $48,000! According to the EPA's annual fuel cost calculator, it would take most people about nine years to recoup the Hybrid's extra cost, all the while tolerating a plastic interior that would embarrass an SUV half the price.
The Highlander Hybrid has a lot going for it: best-in-class fuel economy, strong acceleration and a smooth, comfortable ride. Add a highly functional cabin and generous passenger space in a modest, easily garaged footprint and you have a great recipe for successful family crossover. However, it seems that Toyota has lost sight of the details, packaging that perfect blueprint in dubious quality materials and forgetting features such as blind spot monitoring that have trickled down to long-in-the-tooth economy cars like the Mazda3, but are somehow unavailable on Toyota's $40-50K SUVs and minivans where they are sorely needed.
I think the Highlander Hybrid is a fantastic answer to any family's needs. It's just $10K-$12K too expensive.
Matt Tierney, Art Director