Let’s put the redesigned Toyota Highlander Hybrid into perspective. It’s a midsized SUV that can seat up to seven people. It’s refined and comfortable, loaded with creature comforts, and can tow 3,500 pounds. Yet it gets a very thrifty 25 mpg overall, which is the same as many small SUVs and midsized sedans. That’s pretty impressive, and that’s why it’s now our top-rated midsized SUV.
The Hybrid takes the smooth, powerful V6 from the regular Highlander and adds a hybrid battery pack and three electric motors, increasing horsepower by 10, to 280. In place of the conventional six-speed automatic transmission, the Hybrid uses a continuously variable transmission, which is well-matched to the engine. That combo delivers 25 mpg overall, which is 25 percent better than the regular Highlander’s 20 mpg but 2 less than in the previous Highlander Hybrid.
Power delivery is smooth. Transitions between electric power and the gas engine are seamless. And the Hybrid can usually propel itself on electric power up to about 35 mph.
That extra capability comes at a price, though. Toyota now offers the Hybrid only in the top-of-the-line Limited trims. So compared with the $38,941 Highlander XLE we previously tested, the least expensive Hybrid version starts at $48,555. In addition, advanced safety features, such as pre-collision and lane-departure warnings, are available only as part of a $1,400 options package or as standard equipment on the $51,045 Limited with Platinum Package.
Redesigned for 2014, the Highlander is a little larger than previous ones, with a skosh more room and a third row that can accommodate three passengers.
The new Highlander also handles better, with a steadier ride and reduced body lean in corners. When pushed to its handling limits, a well-tuned stability-control system kept things secure. Energy-saving regenerative brakes make the pedal a little touchy, but stopping distances were good.
The interior is plusher in the Limited version. The front seats are supportive and comfortable, drivers have plenty of room, and controls are simple. Visibility is good; a backup camera is standard.
We were impressed with Toyota’s new infotainment system, which has simple menus that make it easy to select functions, as well as knobs for volume and tuning. It also has excellent voice controls and one of the most comprehensive Bluetooth streaming-audio interfaces we’ve seen.
Best version to get. As impressive as the Highlander Hybrid is, its steep price means that most buyers will find the standard Highlander to be a better deal. The money you save in gas each month won’t make up for the Hybrid’s higher car payment. Among regular Highlanders, the XLE trim is the best value, although high-tech safety features are available only on the Limited. If you don’t need a third-row seat, the Jeep Grand Cherokee diesel could be a good alternative; it costs a little less and gets 24 mpg overall.