There is no doubt we are living in the age of the crossover, and the options, even from the same automakers themselves are overwhelming. With so many choices, the Toyota Highlander has consistently been one of the most popular crossovers on the market. The Garage first put a Highlander through its paces after it was redesigned in 2008 for a harsh Canadian winter. This time around, we sampled the Hybrid model that underwent a mild refresh for 2011. The 2012 Highander Hybrid is carryover, except a third row seat and rear climate control is standard on the base model.
On the road, you see Highlanders everywhere due to their sheer popularity, so it’s not a vehicle one stands up and takes notice. That said, I was pleasantly surprised when our test car in top-spec Limited trim arrived on my doorstep. Finished in a rich-looking Sizzling Crimson Mica, set off by attractive 19″ wheels, and accented with a tasteful application of chrome all added up for a classy, if not unassuming crossover. Hybrid buyers wanting to shout their green credentials to the world will come away disappointed with the Highlander Hybrid, as the differences between a standard Highlander are so subtle few could tell the difference. No knockout, but with nary a bad line on the car, it’s plain to see why the Highlander has such universal appeal.
Inside, the Highlander Hybrid offers an easy to use, comfortable cabin. Quality of materials were top notch, and our fully optioned Limited was downright posh. The Highlander would be my ride I drove to and from the airport for my trip to the 2012 North American Auto Show in Detroit. Leaving on a bright Sunday morning, I appreciated the soft leather, the warmth of the wood trim and excellent sound quality from the optional nine-speaker JBL audio system. After an exhausting three days of travel, meetings, and auto premieres, the Highlander Hybrid Limited was a welcome sight that whisked this weary traveler home in perfect comfort and serenity.
Which was fine for me-I was traveling alone, but remember, this is a three-row crossover. The Highlander has a 40/20/40 second row seat, with a 50/50 third row seat that folds flat. Sorry, but I cannot see any child bigger than one who doesn’t require a booster seat being able to sit in the center second row chair, and the third row is no place for an adult. For cargo room, I’d say the Highlander will do fine for a family of four and all their gear, with the third row handy if there’s an extra couple kids to pick up from soccer practice.
Our test car was a 2011 with plenty of miles on the clock, and press fleet cars tend to get used pretty hard. Even so, our Highlander looked showroom fresh, a testament to the quality and durability of materials Toyota used.
All Highlander Hybrids share the same drivetrain, a 3.5L V-6 with a trio of three electric motors for a combined output of 280hp, paired to a Continuously Variable Transmission. While standard Highlanders can be had in two or four wheel drive, all Highlander Hybrids are available with four wheel drive only. When I hear ‘Toyota hybrid’ my performance expectations are pretty low, so I was mightily impressed with the acceleration. Cruising at a quick clip, keeping up with fast traffic was never an issue. I typically despise CVT’s but the Highlander’s big six exhibited little of the motorboating effect that afflicts so many CVT-equipped cars. But, this is a hybrid after all, so mileage is a major factor. For a three row CUV with plenty of power on tap, the Highlander Hybrid averages an astounding 28 MPG. No surprise, given its target market the steering was dead in feel, but the ride was composed and comfortable.
Our Highlander Limited starts at $43,145USD, with standard leather and wood trim, power, heated front seats, 3-zone auto climate control, XM Radio and back-up camera. Options on our test car included rear-seat DVD entertainment with a 9″ display and wireless remote headphones., and Navigation package which included the JBL audio system, 4-disc CD changer, XM NavTraffic among other goodies. All told, the final tab, including destination came to $48,729, which is a pretty hefty chuck of change. To put that number into perspective, a 2012 Lexus 450h with all-wheel drive without the goodies will run you a full grand less than our Highlander.
With fantastic gas mileage and a plethora of tech options available paired with few compromises, the Highlander Hybrid has a lot going for it. Pluses were a richly appointed cabin and better than expected power while still delivering excellent fuel economy. Downside? The third row is only useful for short trips with kids, as well as the Lexus-territory price tag it carries. Take it easy on the options and the Highlander Hybrid definitely holds plenty of appeal for a buyers seeking CUV capability without a penalty at the gas pump.