Toyota’s popular Highlander SUV is popular and a steady performer for the Japanese automaker. It is not without flaws (that cramped third row being one of the biggest complaints). Coming for the 2024 model year, Toyota will launch the Grand Highlander, a slightly bigger version of the Highlander. For 2023, there’s still plenty to like and talk about the Highlander and this week, I’m covering two versions of the Highlander — the gas version and the hybrid.
While these are the same nameplate and reasonably similar, they have to be judged separately. An interesting fact is that Highlander Hybrid accounts for more than 25% of all the Highlander sales in the U.S. Toyota has long since mastered hybrid technology; and unlike other automakers, they are slowly heading toward electrification instead of going full bore like other automakers.
From a powertrain perspective, both versions have merit. For the 2023 model year, the gasoline-powered Highlander has a new, high-torque, high-efficiency turbocharged four-cylinder engine. By switching from a V6 (the previous model year), the engine is more fuel-efficient, but through clever engineering actually gets more torque. As such, the gas engine is rated 265 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque.
Meanwhile the hybrid version is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with two electric motors. The overall output numbers are punier than the gas version with a combined 243 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque. While both the gas and hybrid version come with front-wheel drive (FWD) or optional all-wheel drive (AWD), another stark difference is in the transmission.
The gas version has an impressive eight-speed transmission while the hybrid version has (you guessed it) a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Many hybrids get mated with a fuel-efficient CVT, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. As such, with the power increase and the automatic transmission, the gas version was what I preferred.
From an aesthetics standpoint, the Highlander looks the same. Sure, there’s the new Cypress Green that my tester had, but otherwise the looks mostly carryover. Inside there are some changes of note. There are now two 12.3-inch touchscreens available: one that serves as a multi-information display (MID) and one as the multimedia screen. This is an improvement over the previous 7-inch touchscreen. Another subtle but well-thought-out change was in the location of the wireless charging station. This moves from the center console, where it was last model year, to a shelf below the audio touchscreen.
A plus for the hybrid is that it has the same amount of cargo and storage area as the gasoline version. Sometimes due to battery location, hybrids lose valuable cargo space. The Toyota Highlander has 16 cubic feet of storage behind the third row and 48 cubic feet with the third row folded. Fold all rear seats down and that cargo area expands to 84 cubic feet.
The third row in the Highlander (in both the gas and hybrid) continues to be best suited for children as the legroom for adults is limited. This is why the Grand Highlander is being launched. The Highlander seems like an ideal SUV with the third row folded flat. Then it has all the cargo you need, and the second row is plenty comfortable with ample leg and shoulder room.
The gasoline version has a slightly lower starting price with the base trim starting around $36,000, while the hybrid version has a starting price around $40,000. For trims, the setup is nearly the same, although the hybrid version has a trim called Bronze. The 2023 Toyota Highlander Platinum with AWD has an MSRP of $51,225. Meanwhile the similarly optioned Hybrid was priced at $52,425.
Where the significant difference is in the fuel economy. The hybrid has an EPA rating of 35 mpg/city and 34 mpg/highway, while the turbocharged 4-cylinder with AWD has an EPA rating of 21 mpg/city and 28 mpg/highway.
The hybrid has a towing capacity of 3,500 pounds, while the gasoline version has a maximum towing capacity of 5,000 pounds.
To put a rumor to bed, the Toyota Highlander is not going away nor being replaced by the upcoming Toyota Grand Highlander. I do think the Grand Highlander may take some sales away from the Highlander; but the steady, consistent seven-passenger Highlander — whether as a fun-to-drive turbocharged SUV or a more fuel-efficient hybrid — is still force for Toyota as well as a darling for consumers.
Jimmy Dinsmore is a freelance automotive journalist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @driversside
2023 Toyota Highlander Platinum AWD
Price/As tested price................................................ $51,225/$54,372
Mileage.......................................... 21 mpg/city; 28 mpg/hwy
Engine............................................. 2.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Horsepower................................. 265 hp/310 lbs./ft.
Transmission................................. 8-speed automatic
Drive Wheels................ All-wheel drive
Final Assembly Point................ Princeton, IN