Review: 2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
Impressive efficiency and space for 8 make the Highlander Hybrid a winning combination.
Large SUVs aren’t the fuel sucking, emissions-spewing beasts they once were. The race to lower greenhouse gas emissions and develop more advanced powertrains less dependent on fossil-fuels have flooded the market with more three-row crossovers and trucks than ever before. We can thank turbochargers, compact electric motors, and power dense lithium-ion batteries that help very small engines move very big vehicles.
The Toyota Highlander is one of the most popular entries in the mid-size SUV class and one of just two that offers a hybrid option and three rows of seating. Ford’s Explorer is the other. It uses a V6 where the Highlander, all new for 2020, has switched over to a frugal four-cylinder.
Some of the most efficient cars I’ve driven have been Toyota hybrids, not ones that can be plugged in, just good old-fashioned hybrids that return great mileage without much input from the driver. The new Highlander Hybrid might just be the most impressive of the lot.
It’s pinned on a version of Toyota’s TNGA-K platform that also sees duty in the Camry, RAV4, and soon-to-arrive Venza. As expected the Highlander grows slightly in every dimension and gets an additional 60 mm added to the length for a bump in cargo capacity and increased adjustability for the second row of seating.
With space for up to eight, the label on the Highlander might say mid-size but it looks and feels much bigger. The fully loaded “Platinum” tester I was driving was equipped with Captain’s chairs in the second row instead of the standard bench. Third-row access is easier this way but you do lose a seat. The third row is a great option for kids and will work for adults if you don’t have too far to go. Or you can quickly drop those seats for an Ikea-friendly 1,150 litres of cargo room. With all three-rows in place, there’s still an acceptable 456 litres left over, good enough for a week’s groceries.
A standard Highlander will come with Toyota’s corporate naturally-aspirated V6, but opt for the hybrid and it gets replaced with an Atkinson-cycle 2.5L 4-cylinder and a couple of small electric motors. A third motor on the rear axle drives the rear wheels independently and without a physical connection to the front, giving the Highlander a trick electric AWD system. Total output is 243 hp. Eagle-eyed readers will be quick to point out that the previous Highlander hybrid made more power and while that’s true, the new one is much more efficient, so it’s a good trade-off.
Toyota rates this eight-passenger SUV at a combined 6.8L/100 km, an astounding figure for something so big. But what impressed me more was how easy that figure was to achieve – and even beat with little effort.
It drives much like any other SUV as well, but the size of this one is apparent all the time. It’s big and you’re not going to forget it. But that doesn’t mean it’s intimidating or difficult to drive. It’s better in the corners that you’d expect it to be, and the relaxed cruising demeanour and cushy ride are perfect for this class of car and its buyers.
It’s peppy too. Don’t think Prius here. The Highlander in Sport mode will use a combination of the gas engine and electric motors to scoot you down the road with more urgency than you would think. Couple that with a massive cruising range and none of the range anxiety associated with EVs, and this might be the ultimate family conveyance.
While there’s no learning curve to driving a hybrid, there are techniques you can use to siphon the most out of every hydrocarbon in the tank, and Toyota makes this fairly easy. Instead of a traditional RPM gauge, there is a power meter. Keep it in the “Eco” zone as much as possible and you’ll maximize the distance a tank of gas will take you. If you find you’re always in the power zone, then you should have probably stuck with the regular Highlander. You can also watch for a small EV light in the cluster. When you see this, you are using no gas at all, and provided you’re in town and keep a light foot on the throttle, you’ll be in EV mode quite frequently.
When you come to terms with the fact that you’re basically driving a small bus, and are getting numbers you’d expect from a tiny hatchback, and that you’d only need to fill up once a month rather than every week, the Highlander Hybrid suddenly becomes one the most attractive vehicles in its class.
And Toyota is basically giving the technology away. The base Highlander L starts at $39,990, but it’s front-wheel drive only. In this country, that means no one is going to buy it and will instead step up to the LE and XLE trims to get all-wheel drive. The hybrid will only run you another $2,000 on top of one of those.
NRCan data tells you that a Highlander Hybrid will save you just about $1000 a year over the gas-only model. So in less time than it will take you to pay one off, you’ll have already recouped the extra cost in fuel. Seems like a win-win to me.
All Highlanders come with Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, a comprehensive suite of safety systems including pre-collision with pedestrian detection, dynamic cruise control, lane departure assist, automatic high beams, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert.
An LE Hybrid is well equipped but if you want all the frills including the enormous 12.8-inch screen, and unique grille, wheels, and seats that you see here, you’ll need to walk all the way up to the Platinum, but at $55,990 it’ll cost you. I’d personally be more than happy with the base LE, but your mileage may vary.
No matter what you pick, you’ll be astonished at just how far a tank of fuel will take you. In this space of three-row SUVs and crossovers, there’s no shortage of choice, and as popular as the Highlander already was this new hybrid comes with little compromise and should be kept near the top of your shopping list.
2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Platinum AWD
BODY STYLE: 5-door, 7-8 passenger mid-size crossover
CONFIGURATION: Front-engine, All-wheel drive
ENGINE: (Hybrid Synergy Drive system) 2.5L, 4-cylinder + electric motors; Combined Power: 243 hp
CARGO CAPACITY: 456-2,076 litres
FUEL ECONOMY: (Regular Gasoline in L/100 km) 6.6 city; 6.8 highway; 6.7 combined
OBSERVED FUEL ECONOMY: 6.5 L/100 km
PRICE: $ 45, 490 (base); $58, 215 (as-tested)