The test vehicle, a 2016 Toyota Highlander Hybrid in top-line Limited Platinum trim, has Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system, but it’s quite unlike the system in the Prius. In the Highlander, a 3.5-liter V-6 is combined with three electric motors, two in front and one in the back.
One of the front motors is a generator and an electric starter for the engine; the other does the work of helping propel the front wheels. The motor in the back drives the rear wheels. Both the driving motors also help with regenerative braking.
But the question is, is this hybrid powerplant trickery worth the compromises? Read on to find out.
It’s not that the Highlander is a bad looking crossover, its just so…innocuous. It looks more cohesive than its little brother, the RAV4, and the front end styling is attractive and moderately aggressive. But the rest of the styling is just bland.
In fact, from the rear three-quarter or side view, it’s hard to differentiate it from its biggest rival, the Honda Pilot, from a distance. Its definitely designed so as not to offend, and because of that it’s only average looking. It’s nowhere near the Mazda CX-9 or the newly redesigned GMC Acadia, two good-looking SUVs, but it’s better looking than the frumpy Nissan Pathfinder.
The paint, which Toyota calls Nautical Blue Metallic, is deep and rich and improves the looks of the otherwise staid Highlander (note that the pictures are manufacturer images and not the test vehicle).
Inside is pretty much the same story. Materials are above average and, as expected of a Toyota, build quality is exemplary. It has some over-designed features, like the clamshell doors on the center console, but for the most part it’s a pleasant if not spectacular interior.
The infotainment system is the same, typical Toyota Entune system that, like in the Camry and RAV4 I recently reviewed, its intuitive and easy to use. But the user interface and the system itself is in dire need of an upgrade, especially as Android Auto and Apple Car Play are becoming more prevalent. The Toyota system offers neither.
Toyota touts the Highlander Hybrid’s powertrain as the most powerful it offers, and it is, beating out the gas-only V6 by 10 horsepower (280 vs. 270). It also behaves seamlessly, much like the Prius. The engine turns on and off when the system deems it so, with the electric motor taking care of launches from a standstill before the V6 kicks on and helps out.
But this behavior, along with the fun-sapping continuously variable transmission, sucks any driving enjoyment there might have been from the car. Granted, a midsize crossover isn’t purchased with driving excitement in mind, but competitors like the Mazda CX-9 and even the larger Dodge Durango, which has a similar price, offer at least a modicum of fun.
Ride and Handling
The big Highlander isn’t the best choice for carving canyons – really, no larger crossover is – as it wallows around corners in a nausea-inducing manner. The steering is also odd. It has effort, but not good effort. It feels as though you’re winding a large rubber band that wants to snap back at any moment. And snap back it does – removing your hands from the wheel mid-turn results in the steering wheel zipping back towards center.
The effort is not linear; it’s exponential. The more you turn the wheel, the more difficult it is to turn. I don’t know if it’s a problem with the hybrid or if this behavior is universal among all models, but this Highlander is by far the worst handling vehicle I’ve ever driven, not only just for TFL but ever. This is odd to me as well, because all the other vehicles I’ve driven that use the same platform – the Camry, the Avalon, the Sienna and the Lexus ES – don’t exhibit this behavior and actually have decent steering.
The Highlander, then, likes to stay in a straight line, which is good for highway burning. It’s pretty good at that, but the ride isn’t as good as it should be for a car that is so obviously not tuned for handling. On a stretch of I-25 that is, shall we say, less than good, the Highlander hopped over the expansion joints in a most unpleasant fashion. I take this stretch of highway quite often, and the Highlander was one of the most noticeable hoppers.
Being a three-row midsize crossover, interior room is generous, at least for the four front passengers. Seats are comfortable, but the steering wheel angle – more minivan than SUV – makes it more difficult to find a comfortable driving position than the Camry sedan upon which it’s based. The second-row captains chairs have a lot of legroom and adjustability, but they wobble over bumps noticeably when not occupied.
The third-row seat is best left for those of a smaller stature. I was able to fit back there – I’m 5-10 – but I didn’t like it very much. There’s also not a lot of storage space behind those third-row seats – 13.8 cubic feet, or less than a compact hatchback. The Sienna minivan, which shares the same platform, has 39.1 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats. The Pilot has 16.5 cubic feet and the Pathfinder has 16.
The third-row seats fold down easily and create a flat load floor. The captain’s chairs can also be folded flat for more cargo space.
Fuel economy is where the Highlander should shine, and it does, relatively speaking. EPA numbers are 27 mpg city, 28 mpg highway and 28 mpg combined. In its time with me, I managed 27 mpg in mixed driving.
It beats all others in city and combined mpg, but its highway mileage is right on par with the competition.
Competition and value
The test car was the top-of-the-line Limited Platinum trim level, and at $51,385 after destination, it’s a pretty pricey crossover. It’s actually one of the most expensive in its class. It trumps the larger Dodge Durango and is in the same ballpark as the Ford Explorer.
But the biggest competition is the non-hybrid Highlander, which can be had for a lot less money. Let’s face it – people don’t care about how much engineering goes into a hybrid, or what kind of motor drives what wheels. People buy hybrids for the fuel savings, which should justify the higher price tag. But does it? How long would it take to make up the difference between the hybrid and non-hybrid Highlander based on gas savings alone?
Let’s do the math.
The hybrid Highlander costs $5,495 more than the non-hybrid version of the same Limited Platinum trim level. We’ll assume for sake of calculation that the owner will hit the EPA combined mileage rating, which is 28 for the hybrid and 20 for the non-hybrid.
If we also assume that the owner will travel the average yearly mileage of 12,000 miles, the non-hybrid owner will buy 600 gallons of gas, while the hybrid owner will buy 429. At the time of writing, the national average for a gallon of regular gas was $2.126. Given this, it would take 15 years for the hybrid owner to make up the difference in price. And that’s just the break-even point – the owner would have to keep it for more than 15 years to realize any cost savings.
In order to make up the difference during a typical five-year auto loan, either the owner has to drive 36,185 miles per year, or gas has to average $6.43 a gallon over the five year loan. Again, that’s just the break-even point.
The bottom line is, unless you’re going to drive more than 36,000 miles a year, or if you want to gamble on the price of gas skyrocketing over the next five years, skip the hybrid and get the regular Highlander.
On the TFLcar scale of:
- Buy It,
- Lease it,
- Rent It,
- or Forget It,
The 2016 Toyota Highlander Hybrid gets a Rent It!
The Highlander is a well-made, well-executed midsize crossover, but the unengaging engine, the odd steering and the wallowy handling, coupled with the complete lack of value of the hybrid powertrain, makes it a questionable choice in the midsize crossover segment. I’ll reserve judgement on the steering and handling of the non-hybrid model, but the hybrid as it is now is just not a very good vehicle. Rent it, and you’ll get some gas savings for the week or so you’ll drive it. But if you want to buy a Highlander, walk right past the hybrid and look at a V6.
There’s part of me that doesn’t understand the appeal of this segment in general. Just looking at the Highlander’s platform mates, the Camry (and the Avalon, for that matter) drives much better and the Sienna hauls people and cargo better. If the third row seat isn’t necessary, the RAV4 does everything the Highlander does in a more manageable package. Maybe someone can explain to me the appeal of this type of vehicle, because I just don’t get it.
Check out this related TFLcar off-road video of the 2016 Toyota Highlander and the 2016 Honda Pilot taking on Gold Mine Hill: