Low gas prices have begotten hard times for hybrids. Even today’s most efficient gas-electrics—the Toyota Prius, the Kia Niro, and the Hyundai Ioniq—don’t pencil against less efficient but much less expensive nonhybrid counterparts in the same general class. And those are hybrids that top 50 mpg. The Toyota Highlander hybrid SUV is in an even tougher spot, given that that its EPA ratings are only a few mpg better than a regular Highlander’s.
Updated for 2017 along with the rest of the Highlander lineup, the hybrid, as before, marries a V-6 engine to a 167-hp motor/generator to power the front wheels, with a second 68-hp electric motor fitted to the rear axle providing on-demand all-wheel drive. The engine, however, is new, and for the first time is shared with the nonhybrid Highlander. It’s now direct injected and makes 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque, improvements of 64 ponies and 48 lb-ft over the previous model, nudging the hybrid powertrain’s total output (taking into account both electric motors) from 280 to 306 horsepower.
Of the four Highlander hybrid trim levels, the base LE model boasts the highest EPA ratings: 29 mpg combined, 30 mpg city, and 28 mpg highway. The figures for the other three (including the Limited tested here) are each 1 mpg lower. Either way, compared with the all-wheel-drive V-6 Highlander, the hybrid’s EPA estimates are only better by a few mpg. Our real-world fuel economy was even less impressive, at 23 mpg overall—just 4 mpg better than the last nonhybrid Highlander we tested, a 2014 model that had the previous, less-efficient V-6 engine and a six-speed automatic transmission. With its new V-6 and eight-speed automatic, the current version likely would narrow the efficiency gap further. In our 75-mph highway fuel-economy test, this latest Highlander hybrid achieved 26 mpg—exactly the same as a nonhybrid 2016 Highlander V-6—or 1 mpg worse than its EPA highway rating and no better than some of its nonhybrid peers, such as the Mazda CX-9.
If there’s a silver lining, it is that the Highlander’s hybrid price premium is smaller than most. The entry-level LE is only $2130 more than an all-wheel-drive, V-6–powered Highlander LE; on the XLE trim, the hybrid’s price penalty is just $1350, whereas the Limited and Platinum hybrids are $1620 dearer than their gas-only counterparts. Oh, and this hybrid (thanks to the updated, more powerful V-6 engine) is the quickest Highlander we’ve ever tested, reaching 60 mph in 7.0 seconds flat. That’s 0.6 second quicker than the old hybrid and 0.3 second quicker than the pre-refresh standard Highlander with the previous V-6 engine.
Still, we’d save the money and just buy the nonhybrid model, which also benefits from a more traditional driving experience. Accelerate quickly in the hybrid, and the V-6 and electric motors combine for a sort of mooing soundtrack as the engine revs to its power peak and stays there while the transmission engages the optimum drive ratio.
Despite the hybrid’s AWD setup, there is noticeable torque steer as the front wheels fight for purchase during hard acceleration. Up to about 30 mph, the hybrid feels peppy and quick; above that speed, the sense of acceleration wanes as the electric motors lose wind and the V-6 shoulders more of the burden. This isn’t entirely surprising; according to Toyota’s weight figures, the battery-assisted Highlander Limited hybrid is 310 pounds heavier than an equivalent nonhybrid.
Dynamically, the three-row Highlander is unexciting, with lifeless steering, occasionally floppy body motions, and horrible brake feel. Toyota has yet to figure out how to transition smoothly from regenerative braking—wherein the electric motors act like mechanical brakes, converting kinetic energy into electricity—to conventional friction braking via the brake rotors. The result is vague and unpredictable response from the brake pedal, although the hybrid’s actual stopping distances are par for this class.
A Regular Three-Row Show
Powertrains aside, the hybrid follows the general Highlander script as a competent family hauler. All models glean cosmetic updates for 2017, including a wide-mouth grille, more LED lighting accents front and rear, and a generally classier appearance overall. The cabin’s assembly is high quality and handsome, and we like the wide shelf that spans most of the lower dash and is handy for storing everyday detritus. Demerits include the touchscreen’s distance from the driver (it’s an easier reach for the front passenger) and the stubby audio and HVAC knobs that are nearly flush with the surrounding surface and therefore difficult to grip.
The Limited tested here, along with the top-end Limited Platinum model, comes with a pair of second-row captain’s chairs and a third-row bench, but buyers can opt for three-person benches in both rows to seat eight in total on the LE and XLE. The Highlander’s second row offers plenty of space, plus fore/aft and recline adjustments—although the seats have a rather low cushion—while the cramped third row is intolerable for anyone but small children. Usefully, the third row, when folded, forms a clean ramp between the cargo floor and the fold-flat second-row chairs, so one can slide boxes or other heavy items in without snagging cargo on anything.
At $46,154 with only extra-cost floor mats and body-side moldings, the Limited you see here isn’t unreasonably expensive for a nicely equipped mid-size three-row crossover. Every 2017 Highlander now comes standard with forward-collision warning, automated emergency braking, and adaptive cruise control, and every trim above the base LE also has blind-spot monitoring. The Limited adds heated and ventilated front seats, 19-inch wheels, and more chrome exterior trim in addition to the sunroof, power front seats, power liftgate, and leather seats (vinyl in the third row) that the XLE brings.
So the Highlander hybrid is every bit the practical and useful three-row family crossover that its gasoline-powered sibling is. And therein lies the rub: There’s no compelling reason to pay extra for it or to deal with its drivability quirks. The small fuel-economy improvement is unlikely to be of much interest, especially when gas is so cheap.
VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, all-wheel-drive, 7-passenger, 4-door hatchback
PRICE AS TESTED: $46,154 (base price: $37,230)
ENGINE TYPE: DOHC 24-valve Atkinson-cycle 3.5-liter V-6, 295 hp, 263 lb-ft; front axle permanent-magnet synchronous AC motor, 167 hp, 247 lb-ft; rear axle permanent-magnet synchronous AC motor, 68 hp, 103 lb-ft; combined output, 306 hp
TRANSMISSION: continuously variable automatic with manual shifting mode
Wheelbase: 109.8 in
Length: 192.5 in
Width: 75.8 in Height: 70.1 in
Passenger volume: 141 cu ft
Cargo volume: 14 cu ft
Curb weight: 4891 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS:
Zero to 60 mph: 7.0 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 17.2 sec
Zero to 110 mph: 21.4 sec
Rolling start, 5–60 mph: 7.3 sec
Top gear, 30–50 mph: 3.6 sec
Top gear, 50–70 mph: 4.3 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 15.4 sec @ 94 mph
Top speed (governor limited): 112 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 183 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad*: 0.77 g
EPA combined/city/highway driving: 28/29/27 mpg
C/D observed: 23 mpg
C/D observed 75-mph highway driving: 26 mpg
C/D observed highway range: 440 mi