Minutes after I took delivery of the Silver Sky Metallic 2016 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, I pulled alongside an early first-generation model at a stoplight. It was slightly smaller, and a little lower, but what caught my eye was its profile. There was something about it that was just a little more masculine; truck-like, utilitarian. It really wasn’t any different in execution than the 10-plus year newer version I was sitting in — the Highlander is, was, and probably always will be built on the Camry platform — but it suddenly made me long for the days when SUVs still made an effort to pretend to be utility vehicles, which something the current Highlander doesn’t do.
That’s by no means a mark against Toyota, it’s simply the nature of the beast called the SUV market in 2016. The minivan is on life support, with most of its demographic having long since split for crossovers or three-row SUVs. Naturally, some of their kid-friendly comforts have made their way into the segment through osmosis, or maybe just through focus groups. And with the exception of the Honda Pilot, the Highlander could be the most family-friendly of the bunch. Well-heeled travelers go for the Land Cruiser, and weekend adventurers have the 4Runner. But families who outgrow their RAV4s trade up for Highlanders, and with 158,915 Americans taking one home last year, Toyota has proven that it has a pretty compelling formula on its hands.
In New York City, they’re everywhere. As taxi cabs, as town cars, as family cars, it’s hard to go more than a block or two in Manhattan and Brooklyn without seeing one. And that’s because you know what you’re getting with the Highlander: Toyota reliability, dependability, and resale value, you feel certain that you’re taking home a truly sensible family car.
But at the end of the day, it’s still a “Sports Utility Vehicle,” and in New York, there really isn’t a good way for the Highlander to prove its mettle, especially since the Parks Department frowns on drivers that try to hill climb Fort Greene Park or rallycross Sheep Meadow in Central Park. So to truly put my Highlander Hybrid through its paces, I decided to take it North to Vermont (home of Autos Cheat Sheet editor Justin Lloyd-Miller) to help the Highlander find its inner-SUV across the state in mid-February — roads be damned.
Except for the Ford Flex and upcoming Mazda CX-9, there isn’t much of what you’d call stylistic diversity in the three-row midsize SUV segment, and that’s largely by design. Yes, the Highlander has a front fascia that looks Camry-esque (with a little Lexus in its grille), but if you don’t care about cars, you probably wouldn’t pick up on that. And if you took the badge off your neighbor’s Highlander in the Costco parking lot, there’s a chance he might not be able to pick it out of a row of other SUVs.
The Highlander isn’t ugly, but it isn’t pretty either. Still largely unchanged from its 2014 design, it’s big, it looks modern, and it rides high — all the hallmarks of a modern SUV. Exterior fit and finish is great, and exactly what you’d expect from Toyota. In the end, its sheer size — 16 feet long, almost six foot height — makes it a commanding presence, especially when it’s gleaming fresh from a car wash. If you’re in the market for an SUV in the segment, bringing a Highlander home will probably make you the envy of the neighborhood, at least for a few days.
Exterior pros and cons
+ Almost scientifically contemporary styling. Years from now, people will look back at the Highlander as the embodiment of midsize SUV design, circa mid-’10s.
+ Brightwork on the front and rear fascia keeps it from looking too monolithic.
+ The Bright Silver Sky Metallic paint is a nice change from the muted colors you usually see Highlanders in; it suits the big SUV nicely.
– Despite Toyota’s best efforts, you’d be forgiven for losing it in a crowded parking lot.
– Tinted glass looks good from the outside, inside it makes the Highlander feel like you’re driving a rolling cave.
– While there’s nothing to hate about its styling, there isn’t much to love either.
The most noteworthy aspects of the Highlander — good and bad — come from its powertrain. In Limited Hybrid trim, the 3.5 liter V6 and CVT are paired with two electric motors and a 45 kilowatt battery to help with economy. But it’s a dicey proposition, especially with fuel prices as low as they are. In fact, fueleconomy.gov recently ranked the Limited Hybrid as the third worst hybrid from a value standpoint. In our wrap-up on the list, our Eric Schaal said:”According to fueleconomy.gov, it would take 17.1 years at current gas prices for the buy to make financial sense.”
But in my week with the Highlander, its magic number was 23.5. I got 23.5 miles per gallon in bumper-to-bumper near-gridlock, on flat-land highways, on mountain highways, dirt roads, and in fields. No matter how much I pushed or prodded, the average economy never strayed from that mark. The hybrid system and gasoline engine play very well together, the stop/start function was nice and discreet, and frankly, I was impressed by it’s stubbornly consistent fuel returns.
But it’s how you get to those 23.5 miles per gallon that’s the problem. Accelerating onto highways, passing, or barreling down mountain passes, the Highlander’s 3.5 liter six begged, pleaded, and screamed for mercy under acceleration like one of Joe Pesci’s victims in Goodfellas. Justin and I reasoned that this is fine, especially since it must share its 2.5 liter four-based powertrain from the Camry, surely the V6-powered model is slightly less overworked. Unfortunately, I had left the Monroney sticker at home, and despite our inspection under the hood, we were wrong. The Highlander was indeed powered by the bigger mill. The six is the only engine available in the Limited Hybrid, and it’s woefully, astonishingly unfit for the job. I don’t know where it kept the advertised 280 net horsepower and 247 pound-feet of twist, but neither of us could seem to find any of it under any driving setting or situation. Most big family-friendly SUVs get a pass for being slow, but we like them better when they don’t whine or scream every time you step on the gas.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ It’s hard not to admire such shockingly consistent fuel returns.
+ Stop/Start function is refreshingly unobtrusive.
+ CVT does its job nicely without stepping on the engine’s toes.
– That 3.5 liter engine is nearly as unfit to serve as the governor of Michigan.
– Unless you plan on holding onto your Highlander until May 2033, the hybrid model is a tough sell.
– It would be near-impossible to change your driving habits to the point that you’d never have to hear that 3.5 liter six whine.
The Highlander might not grab you as you walk by it in the parking lot, but inside, it’s purely, unmistakably Toyota. Our test model may have been a range-topping $51,385 Limited Hybrid model, but you can expect the same Toyota fit-and-finish and attention to detail in the $29,990 base model. The dash is neatly laid out and handsome, and everything from the digital clock to the writing on buttons is recognizably Toyota, which for millions of buyers is exactly what they want, regardless of which model they choose.
Soft-touch finishes and weighty controls abound, the leather seats are very nicely done, and the first two rows of seats have plenty of room for four tall adults. And while the third-row seats are a tight fit for adults, they should be just fine for kids. Overhead, the panoramic sunroof is beautiful, and came in handy for taking in the Vermont scenery. The independent rear climate control did a good job of keeping things comfortable when the winter sun decided to come out too.
That said, there were some drawbacks. The seats could really benefit from better bolstering; we tended to get thrown around a bit on curves and rocky roads. The aforementioned window tint makes the cabin shockingly dark, even with the panoramic roof’s sunshade opened mid-day. It took me a day of driving to realize that there was brown accent trim to lighten up the black interior. And while it was small potatoes, I was bothered by the wood trim on the doors and dash; it was very nice, but it didn’t extend past the center console, meaning everything to the left of it had a flat plastic panel. In such a well thought out interior, that struck me as an odd oversight.
Interior pros and cons
+ Toyota knows how to do interiors, and the Highlander’s is very good.
+ Soft touch plastics and leather are very nice. And that panoramic sunroof is gorgeous.
+ Under-dash shelf with port to run USB cables came in very handy, as did the massive storage space in the roll-top center console.
– All that tinted glass sure makes it dark in there.
– It may not be a performance car, but it could still benefit from better seat bolstering.
– Despite being priced like a Lexus, it still feels like a Toyota inside.
Tech and safety
The Limited Hybrid came with a suite of tech and safety features that did their jobs well without being a nuisance. With the Platinum package (standard on the Limited), the SUV came stocked with Safety Connect, a pre-collision system, radar cruise control, lane departure warning, and automatic high-beam headlights, all part of Toyota’s Driver Technology package.
Unsurprisingly, lane departure worked better on the highways than it did in New York City or off-road. When faced with an unmarked or neglected road, the system would arbitrarily designate a lane. If you left it, you would be scolded with a beep and message in the MID. As a result, the system stayed off for most of my time with the Highlander. And while radar cruise control was great for steady highway traffic, it proved to be a little oversensitive, picking up the position of cars in other lanes and slowing you down even if you had open road ahead.
Those gripes aside, the eight inch touch screen works great, and the Etune infotainment system is a clean, simple, and intuitive interface, with everything from the clear, wide-angle backup camera, to the satellite radio being easy to access on the fly. In short, it does everything you’d want a big family car to do without having to be reminded. For many car buyers, that alone is worth it.
Tech pros and cons
+ Driver’s Technology Package has everything you need to feel safe.
+ Wide, clear backup camera is one of the best in the segment.
+ Etune system is fast and easy to use, from the nav to the stereo.
– It certainly beats the alternative, but some systems (radar cruise control, lane-departure) are a little too sensitive.
– You can access a lot of information on the MID, but it’s a scrolling menu. That’s a lot of information to take in while driving.
– Negative space in the dash-top clock panel seemed oddly underutilized. It could be a great space to mitigate some of the MID clutter.
Driving in New York, I understood why the Highlander is so popular. It’s quiet, it handles the awful roads well, and its safety features make driving and parking easy. The dreaded 3.5 made accelerating to highway speeds and merging north a little less than fun, but it proved itself to be a capable long-distance cruiser, even if it was tall enough to be effected by even the slightest winds.
But in Vermont, the Highlander was able to acquit itself well. From low-double digit temperatures on my first night there, it quickly warmed up into the mid-50s the next morning, leaving the backroads around Montpelier a mixed bag. But the Highlander’s intelligent all-wheel drive system worked imperceptibly, keeping us steady over ice, water, or the occasional dirt road that seemed to be losing a fight with erosion. The aforementioned seat bolstering made going through the twisties a little uncomfortable, but the big SUV proved to stay relatively level in tight corners. The only time it lost its composure was under heavy braking, when the regenerative system coupled with strong brakes make the big nose dive like a 1970s Chrysler. With a little practice though, you figure out how to keep it from doing that, all while getting some power sent back to the battery.
Despite its suburban-friendly looks and Camry-based platform, the Highlander still feels like it has some real Toyota truck DNA in there. We admittedly didn’t push it too hard, but it handled dirt, pavement, gravel, mud, and grass without losing its footing once. Seeing as most Highlanders won’t see any off-roading duty, and most soft-roaders can barely handle wet grass, I was surprised by how well the Highlander did. It may not be ready for Moab, but it’s more than ready for that Target run when there’s a few inches of snow on the ground.
Wrap up and review
From the moment I took the keys to when I had it picked up, one word summed up the Highlander Limited Hybrid for me: Adequate. And I don’t mean that with any degree of sarcasm; it doesn’t look bad, but it doesn’t look great. The interior is comfortable, familiar, and well-made, but the seats aren’t the most comfortable. It gets astonishingly consistent fuel economy, but its powerplant was downright maddening. It should be middle of the pack. It should be unremarkable. Frankly, it should be a bit of a let down.
And yet, it isn’t. Being an autos scribe, I’m lucky enough to eat, sleep, and talk cars all day. But the rest of the world isn’t like that, and for good or ill, that’s who automakers make cars – especially three-row midsize SUVs – for. Because of this, a lot of cars out there aren’t couldn’t qualify as good, let alone adequate. They’re boring, or they’re forgettable, or they handle terribly, or they’re horribly built, or they’re any number of other pitfalls mass-market family cars can suffer from.
The Highlander is none of these things. It’s a solid B-student in a class full of underachievers, but the mediocrity of other family SUVs and crossovers raises its rank. It may not look as masculine as a Dodge Durango, but we’re willing to wager that it’ll hold up better to wear-and-tear. It may be less exciting than a Mazda CX-9, but you’ll likely get more for it when you’re ready to trade it in. Ultimately, people buy Toyotas not because they handle great, or they’re the sexiest option out there, but because they’re good at nearly everything. Other automakers would kill for Toyota’s reputation, and after a week with the Highlander, I’m reminded why.
It isn’t as truck-like as its predecessors, but that’s because people don’t want truck-like SUVs anymore, they wan’t family vehicles. And in the Highlander, Toyota has itself one very capable family vehicle. With gas prices as low as they are, we’d recommend skipping the hybrid model, but if you’re looking for a even-handed, well-built hauler that will give you miles of trouble-free driving and hold its resale value, the Highlander is a pretty safe bet.