Ah the three-row, family-sized SUV that is all the rage today. Abound on America’s highways are the Honda Pilot, GMC Acadia, new Chevy Traverse, Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder, Dodge Durango, Volkswagen Atlas and others. The Toyota Highlander used to just be a plain-jeans wearing cousin of the Lexus RX300. However, now it has its own identity as the mid-sized Toyota family-hauler with three rows of seats. What makes this version so interesting is it is a hybrid. Can we have our SUV and fuel economy too? Toyota (and we) think so!
The hybrid powertrain isn’t readily available to its competitors in the midsized three-row SUV class. But impressively the Highlander Hybrid can tow 3500 pounds. The transmission is a CVT which is a little strange at first, but you will get used to it quickly. Toe in the throttle and you will hear the hybrid motors ramp up. Push it a little more and you will feel the gas powerplant spring to life with extra coaxing. Together, the system output Toyota states is 306 horsepower. With regenerative braking, the Highlander does better in the city than it does out on the open road, earning an EPA rating of 29 city, 27 highway. For those who typically shuttle kids around town, a 29 EPA rating can be nice when compared to the neighbor rocking the Tahoe and barely touching the teens.
One thing I like about the Highlander Hybrid is not every single electronic item is integrated into the touchscreen. For example, there are still old-school dials for the heated and cooled seats. Also, there is a button for the heated steering wheel right on the dashboard. We like this approach of not having absolutely everything on the screen. But fear not- there is plenty to play with on the center stack. There are six hard buttons around the screen that don’t push in, but rather you touch a little protruding dot in the center of the switch to toggle from audio, to phone, to in-car apps. The App Suite is definitely cool, and we like how Toyota has Yelp integrated into the navigation system screen. It makes finding restaurants on-the-fly easy. Additionally, there are a multitude of cameras and parking aids built into the vehicle. The birds-eye view camera with integrated stitching network made some passengers believe they were taking a video of the Toyota from a satellite in space. In reality, it just makes it easy to park and avoid obstacles when traveling slowly. It is certainly a unit that should be retained in the vehicle for the immediate future.
But what can be upgraded is the JBL Green Edge system. JBL designed this system to use efficient amplifiers, but it sure does run out of steam once the volume knob passes 25, and it tops out at 30. At lower volume levels the sound is not bad, but you can hear some of the funky processing Harman engineers added into the system to retain good sound while keeping the equipment ‘right-sized’ for efficiency. What works in the Prius can be upgraded here. There are 12 speakers, and I would recommend swapping out the front stage speakers for some decent aftermarket units. An outboard signal processor can then massage the audio system to produce quality the JBL name is usually associated with. A small subwoofer out back would also help deliver an audiophile experience.
For the kiddos in the rear, there is one cool feature called Driver Easy Speak. It allows you to yell at the kids in the third-row through a built-in intercom that uses the microphone of the cell phone interface. It isn’t bullhorn loud, but it can help alleviate the shouting. To keep kids occupied, a 9” Blu Ray rear seat entertainment unit is available, but alas it was not in my tester that was otherwise fully-loaded. The aftermarket can help take this up to the next level by integrating screens into the front seat headrests.
Overall it the Highlander is a quiet, functional workhorse that will deliver years of service. The hybrid system, like the one found in the Prius, is proven. Just add some sounds and entertainment for the kids, and this SUV will be the envy of the other midsize SUVs in the pack- especially when you pass them at the gas pumps!