With the mid-size crossover sport utility vehicle cannibalizing more and more minivan sales every year, automakers have put a lot of focus on the so-called “soft roaders”, packing them full of utility and features. While they’ve generally not been as fuel efficient as a minivan, they still consume less than a full-frame truck-based SUV (think Chevrolet Tahoe or Suburban). Toyota has taken upon themselves to address this issue with the 2017 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited, and the DoubleClutch.ca editorial team recently got a chance to check it out.
In its third generation, the Highlander Hybrid has been available for over a decade now. Today’s model starts at $49,985 for a well-equipped XLE trim level, and the test vehicle that Toyota Canada sent over is the top-dog Limited model. At an as-tested price of $55,990, there were no extra equipped options, but the Limited includes just about everything but the kitchen sink. There’s a full leather seat interior, heated steering wheel, JBL Synthesis audio, navigation, three-zone climate control, retractable rear side window sunshades, a panoramic sunroof, and 19-inch wheels.
There’s also the full Toyota Safety Sense system (reviewed here), which includes automatic high beam headlights, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning (“pre-collision system”), and lane departure alert with lane keeping assist. Relatively speaking, Hybrid Limited it’s a $5,995 premium compared to the regular Limited. When compared against its gas-only archrival Honda Pilot Touring, the Hybrid Limited is $4,500 more. The Honda will have more technology features, rear seat Blu-ray entertainment, at the expense of some fuel economy.
Powering the Hybrid models is a combination of Toyota’s venerable 3.5-litre V6 sending power to the front wheels, and electric power going to the rear in an all-wheel drive version of Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive. There’s no physical driveshaft connection between the two, and so there isn’t a transfer of power under slippery conditions that’s seen in the regular Highlander. Total system output is 306 horsepower, which is an eleven horsepower bump over the gas engine alone. Paired to the engine is a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) that keeps both gas and electric engines in sync.
The gasoline V6 is the definition of smoothness with a punchy midrange, and the Highlander Hybrid gets up to speed even better with the addition of electric assist. The CVT automatic transmission does give a little bit of rubber band feel (akin to slipping), so those coming from traditional transmissions will need some time to get accustomed to it. At wide-open throttle, since the gas engine sends power to only the front wheels, there’s a significant amount of torque steer that tugs the steering wheel left and right. This will be noticed the most during merging and passing. Gas-only models with all-wheel drive avoid this by shifting some of the power to the rear.
For this crossover, fuel economy is the name of the game and the Hybrid Synergy Drive system doesn’t fail to disappoint. Rated for 8.1L/100km in the city and 8.5L/100km on the highway, observed fuel economy wasn’t quite as good, at 8.8L/100km in mostly highway driving. This is attributable to headwinds and temperatures approaching -10 degrees Celsius during the week on test, and there was a heavy reliance on extra heating and defrost to the interior comfortable. In any case, this is about twenty percent better than the regular version.
With its $5,995 price premium over a non-Hybrid, it will still take several years to pay back the initial investment, so prospective buyers will need to do some math. The Honda Pilot Touring with the nine-speed automatic transmission can come close in terms of highway mileage, but won’t hold a candle to the city and combined driving numbers that are attainable with a hybrid. Fuel capacity is 65 litres, which is 7.5 less than the regular Highlander, but this is largely negated (and then some) with the improved efficiency. Regular octane fuel is acceptable.
On the open road, drivers and passengers alike will generally enjoy their ride in the Highlander. While the suspension can be a bit jarring over potholes and larger bumps at low speeds, seat comfort is good, and drivers will be able to cover long highway distances without stopping due to discomfort. Compared to others in its class, it’s not the quietest or smoothest (the Honda Pilot and Kia Sorento get high marks for that), by no means is it a bucking bronco.
Inside, three rows of excellent usability are par for the course for a Highlander. With captain’s chairs in the middle row, there’s seating for seven (those who need to fit eight can get the XLE, which has a bench), and full-grown adults can sit very comfortably in the first two rows. The third row is most suited to children, and will be tighter than a minivan. There’s 1,189 litres of cargo capacity behind the second row, and 385 litres behind the third. Thankfully, there’s no perceivable loss of cargo space to account for the hybrid system’s battery, so integration in daily family life will be seamless.
For multimedia connectivity on the Highlander Hybrid Limited, Toyota’s current iteration of their infotainment suite does reasonably well. There’s full smartphone and Bluetooth connectivity, Hybrid Synergy Drive charge system status, and an album art database powered by Gracenote. The buttons flanking the touch screen were a little bit far from the driver, and most will have to reach pretty far to tune the radio or seek through tracks. Otherwise, material fit and finish is flawless, as is typical for Toyota. Material selection isn’t the most premium feeling, but you can count on the Toyota’s materials to wear very well over time.
Overall, for a well-equipped midsize crossover, the 2017 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited is a generally great choice for families looking for a more efficient option to transport people and cargo. Those who do exclusively highway driving may elect to skip the Hybrid since the mileage gains aren’t significant in that area. Those who prefer interior appointment and handling may like the Honda Pilot, and those who like smooth and quiet ride quality may like the (slightly smaller) Kia Sorento (reviewed here).
Toyota does have a trump card with their statistically excellent reliability, and there are some maintenance advantages to having a Hybrid: among other things, there’s no serpentine belt to worry about, and brakes last practically forever due to the help of regenerative braking in which the electric motor operates as a generator to charge the battery and slow the car down. While the sea of midsize crossovers in the industry seem to blur together, each one subtly carves out its own little niche in the market, and it almost goes without saying that the Highlander and Highlander Hybrid model range will continue to do very well.