Hybrid hype from Highlander

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid offers fuel economy without the frills

Toyota has found a niche. Having mastered hybrid technology for decades with the Prius, they are now putting hybrid technology in all their vehicles. Their SUVs are the latest to get hybrid treatments. Case in point, this week’s tester is the 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid.

For a seven-passenger SUV that weighs more than 4,500 pounds to achieve 35 mpg is impressive. I don’t usually reveal the fuel economy numbers until later in my reviews, but that, above all else, is what is most impressive about the Highlander. Not the looks, not the interior, but the hybrid platform with the fuel economy.

That may be less exciting but with gas prices being what they are, that feels like a big deal.

But let’s talk about the looks first. Few vehicles on the road today epitomize “run of the mill SUV” like the Highlander. That’s not an indictment but a statement of fact.

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The looks are all around steady and consistent. But the overall conservative styling means the Highlander lacks personality and distinction. The smaller grille works with subdued front end, where the only distinction is on the hood indentations. The blue Toyota emblem in the center of the grille designates it as a hybrid.

The back end is the best looking side with a rear spoiler and taillights that span from the back quarter panel to halfway on the tail gate. All in all, the back side redeems the overall aesthetics of the Highlander Hybrid saving it from blending in and the SUV doldrums that pervade this segment.

The common theme here with the Highlander is playing it safe and being conservative. That’s all too obvious when it comes to the way the Highlander Hybrid drives. If you’re wanting exhilaration or even athleticism, you’ll be sadly disappointed. But if you’re wanting fuel-efficient, quiet, refined and a great daily driver, then that’s what this SUV does best. Don’t expect anything else from the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with two electric assist motors.

It produces 243 horsepower and 186 lb.-ft. of torque. My tester came with all-wheel drive which as an improvement in handling for a vehicle like this. The continuously variable transmission (CVT) comes with its own quirks and annoying behavior. This is not exclusive to Toyota, but to all CVTs in general. They’re fuel efficient, but they are annoying.

Even with all-wheel drive, the Highlander Hybrid gets stellar fuel economy. It has an EPA rating of 35 mpg/city and 34 mpg/highway, making this one of the best daily driver and commuter SUVs on the road – not to mention family road trips would be a breeze in the efficient and spacious SUV.

The interior space is another redeeming quality for the Highlander. Far too many SUVs lack comfort but the Highlander doesn’t want for space. I wouldn’t put adults in the third row, but certainly the third row is fine for kids and pets. The second row offers ample legroom and headroom and plenty of creature comforts including cushioned seats.

Toyota’s infotainment system is simple and intuitive. When it comes to these systems I’ll take a responsive touchscreen and easy-to-use features over high-tech systems that can often confound and confuse.

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In third-row hybrid SUVs, sometimes cargo room has to be sacrificed, but that’s not the case with the Highlander. There’s 16 cubic feet behind the third row, which is just average for the segment. But the 48.4 cubic feet behind the second row and the 84.3 cubic overall is impressive. A power liftgate is fairly common but should be appreciated.

There are four trims available for the Highlander Hybrid, LE, XLE, Limited and Platinum. My tester was the Limited. It had a starting price of $47,115. With several options including the optional 12.3-inch touchscreen, my tester had a final MSRP of $50,363.

If the only real criticism of a vehicle is it’s too consistent and too conservative, you know it’s probably a good vehicle. Toyota has mastered hybrid technology, probably better than any manufacturer. So putting it in a bigger SUV like the Highlander only improves it and makes it more viable for families. In other words, they’ll probably sell a lot of them.

Jimmy Dinsmore is a freelance automotive journalist. Email him at jimmydinsmore73@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @driversside

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited

  • Price/As tested price................................................ $47,115/$50,363
  • Mileage.......................................... 35 mpg/city; 34 mpg/hwy
  • Engine............................................. 2.5-liter 4-cylinder hybrid
  • Horsepower................................. 243 hp/186 lbs./ft.
  • Transmission................................. CVT
  • Drive wheels................ All-wheel drive
  • Final assembly point................ Princeton, Indiana

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