2012 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Road Test Review

Simon Hill - CAP staff
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One thing you've got to give Toyota credit for - and this likely plays a large part in the company's success - is that it knows the true purpose of each of its vehicles, and doesn't generally do anything to them that would upset the apple cart.

It's an approach that has resulted in a well-rounded range of cars, while still allowing room for the development of some successful exercises in style (the FJ Cruiser and Venza both come to mind here) and some leading-edge technology (Toyota's Prius, which is itself a bit of a styling exercise, was the undeniable leader in the development of real-world hybrids).

For Toyota's bread-and-butter models, the company's conservative approach tends to result in vehicles that are extremely competent but not particularly exciting or distinctive. Consider, for example, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid. The gasoline-powered Highlander was first introduced in 2000 as a 2001 model, aimed squarely at buyers who wanted the practicality and appeal of an SUV, but without the ride and fuel-economy penalties - it was a "Suburban Utility Vehicle" rather than a "Sport Utility Vehicle."

The Highlander Hybrid offers a car-like ride, seven-passenger seating and the kind of fuel economy only a hybrid can provide. Styling is pleasant but not particularly distinctive. (Photo: Toyota)
The Highlander was an immediate hit: It sold well and remained essentially unchanged until a 2007 redesign that saw it grow incrementally in every direction. In the meantime, a hybrid version was introduced in 2005, and like its gasoline-powered siblings it was redesigned in 2007 and refreshed in 2011 with a new grille and front-end design. The headlights now run into the grille like the Venza's, and the Hybrid got its own distinctive grille treatment - the overall effect is that the non-hybrid Highlander now looks quite a bit like the Venza, while the Highlander Hybrid looks a bit like an oversize Subaru wagon.

Unlike its gasoline-powered siblings, the Hybrid also received a new engine as part of its refresh, getting a 3.5L DOHC VVT-i V6 to partner with its electric hybrid motors, instead of the previous 3.3L powerplant. The new hybrid powertrain, which uses a constant velocity transmission and nickel-metal hydride traction battery, is good for a combined total of 280 horsepower.

Thus refreshed, the Highlander Hybrid carries over into 2012 unchanged except for the addition of a tonneau cover to its list of interior features. Even the colours, such as my test car's Shoreline Blue Pearl, are the same for 2012.

On the road, this means the Highlander Hybrid continues to offer all the good stuff that has made it popular: a compliant, car-like ride, 7-passenger seating, all-wheel drive traction, decent power and good fuel economy for its class, especially when confronted with congested stop-and-go city traffic.

On the other hand, while the compliant ride makes the Highlander Hybrid a comfortable place for passengers, there continue to be noticeable tradeoffs in driving dynamics: The front tires moan in protest during even the most mildly enthusiastic cornering, the electric steering is numb feeling, and due to the heavy front-wheel drive bias the tracking can be a bit squirrelly under heavy acceleration.

But there are no complaints about the hybrid drivetrain: Toyota pioneered hybrid technology and today builds seamless systems that work smoothly and inconspicuously. The only thing to really tip you off that you're driving a hybrid is the fact that the engine shuts down at traffic lights, and that the CVT holds the engine revs steady under acceleration instead of letting them climb and fall in concert with vehicle speeds and gear shifts. Regenerative brakes charge up the traction battery when braking, and I found that these could sometimes be a bit grabby, but not intrusively so.

With its new engine, the Highlander Hybrid accelerates briskly when needed and gets city/hwy ratings of 6.6 / 7.3 L/100km, compared to 12.6 / 8.7 L/100km for the regular V6 4WD Highlander. Even better, in real-world stop-and-go city driving I found that my test car achieved economy commendably close to the posted rating.  

Inside, the Highlander Hybrid offers seating for seven, but realistically three of these seats are only short-haul seating for kids or smaller adults. The third-row seats are tight on leg and shoulder room, while the centre position in the second row is hampered by Toyota's desire to allow an aisle to the third row. In order to achieve this, Toyota makes the centre second-row seat removable, and you can replace it with a console that stows under the forward centre console. While this arrangement allows the outboard second-row seats to convert into individual captains chairs, it does mean that the seating in the centre position feels a lot like sitting on a console.

As for the rest of the interior, it makes plentiful use of hard plastics, but is generally well thought-out, well-assembled and family-friendly. All Highlander Hybrids come with three-zone climate control (manually controlled in the standard trim and automatic in Limited trim), power-adjustable drivers seat, split-folding rear seats, power locks and windows, and backup camera (albeit with a very small screen). Limited models add leather seating surfaces, some woodgrain trim, an upgraded audio system, navigation system (which puts the backup camera in the larger nav screen), rear privacy glass, pushbutton start, power moonroof, larger 19-inch wheels and a few other features. All Highlanders come with an alphabet soup of safety systems including stability control, antilock brakes and a full array of airbags.

Pricing for the 2012 Highlander Hybrid starts at $42,990 for a Standard Trim model and climbs up to $51,950 for a Limited edition, which represents a premium of about $7,000 over a regular gasoline-powered V6 4WD Highlander. Whether that premium is worth it depends partly on your driving habits and partly on the value you place on lowering your environmental footprint (which itself needs to take into account the extra resources used to create the hybrid drivetrain, especially the traction battery). If you drive mostly in the city and average 20,000 km per year, you could save 1,200 litres of fuel per year by driving the hybrid. Call it 1,000 litres annually to account for the lesser savings of any highway driving, and assume an average price of $1.35 per litre, and that's a potential savings of $1,350 annually, which would pay off the extra cost of the hybrid in just over five years and provide substantial savings thereafter. So the math could work quite nicely - just like the Highlander Hybrid itself.

©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)

Topics: Crossover, SUV, Toyota, 2012, Highlander Hybrid, $40,000 - $49,999, $50,000 - $74,999,

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