The Only One In Its Class

A Victory & Reseda review of the 2017 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Before I get into this review of the 2017 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited, let's talk about the state of the family SUV.

From what I have seen recently, the mid-sized SUV is enjoying a mini-renaissance. Sales are up on several models, such as the Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee. Volumes are strong, too. The best sellers are now delivering over 21,000 units per month at peak.

What Volkswagen has now discovered through the introduction of the Atlas is that families want more than just a $28,000 compact SUV. They crave more space, utility, performance, towing capacity and more. Every mainstream brand and manufacturer now offers such a vehicle – all starting at around $30,000 – and want to make sure you get the most bang for your buck.

Any discussion of mid-sized SUVs must include the Toyota Highlander. Not because it has won its share of "best-in-segment" accolades, but rather its relevance in the face of stiff competition from Ford, Jeep, Volkswagen, Nissan, Hyundai, Honda, Dodge, Kia, Mitsubishi, Mazda and GMC. Soon, there will be new rivals from Chevrolet and Subaru within the next year or so.

When surveying the competition, one thing becomes clear: Neither of these mid-sized SUVs offer the option of hybrid gas-electric power today. Only Toyota. They offered the Highlander Hybrid since July of 2005. They now offer three trims of Highlander Hybrids.

2017 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited

The one I just finished working with is the top of the range Limited trim with the Platinum package. It offers everything you can find on a Highlander short of calling it a Lexus. We're talking a three-row SUV with a hybrid driveline showing a complete sticker price of $49,254. I'll get back to you on that part, but we must talk about why the Highlander is still relevant in this segment today.

The first thing about this Highlander is that it underwent a mid-cycle refresh for 2017. This went beyond a new front clip, taillights, the new SE model and a few trim changes inside. It marks the arrival of Toyota Safety Sense-P to the Highlander lineup. This suite of active safety features play an important role for Toyota, since everyone else is scrambling to offer the same level of occupant and vehicle protection technologies to more models in this segment. Features include Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection and Automatic High Beams. The most important piece about Toyota Safety Sense-P is that it is standard on all Highlander models – every trim, every engine/drive combination…including Hybrids. Find a current mid-sized SUV in a base level trim that offers these features standard.

While we savor the arrival of Toyota Safety Sense-P on this Highlander, there is a lot more going on for this mid-cycle refresh. Non-Hybrid V6 models receive the new direct-injected 3.5 liter engine found on the Sienna and Tacoma. They also added a new eight-speed automatic transmission to the mix for improved fuel economy and smoother running.

2017 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited

While the V6 will be the most popular engine in the Highlander lineup, its exclusive hybrid driveline is what I have to drive. I could not emphasize the fact that no else else will put one in their mid-sized SUV, leaving Toyota with the bragging rights.

According to my fellow pundits, the point of a hybrid driveline is to enable better fuel efficiency by using the electric motor more in town. It's great for commuting and errands, really. Through regenerative braking and low speed electric only driving, your vehicle will achieve higher than expected fuel economy figures while emitting less pollution into the air.

Here is where I have to argue a bit on this topic. While getting better fuel economy and emitting less exhaust gasses are great, what about when this vehicle has to do what it was designed to do – take families on vacations. I get it, a vast majority of segment buyers get one as their primary family hauler. The primary usage of the vehicle is normally done within town or metropolitan area. Why people choose SUVs over sedans is the availability of a larger and more flexible cargo hold to carry camping gear, luggage and the family pet. They are also sold to accommodate a family where the kids grow from infant to high school graduate.

While the family vacation is one function of having a Toyota Highlander, I must return to reality. Having up to 83.7 cubic feet of cargo capacity available, the reality is that one would not use all of it. Here in Minnesota, families do other activities with their children – mainly hockey, lacrosse and soccer. So, if a parent carries six hockey players across all three rows, the 13.8 cubic feet behind the third row would not be able to take six hockey equipment bags. To make matters more interesting this Limited trim with the Platinum package has second row captain's chairs and a foldaway mini console. For optimal sports parent mode, there would be room for three youth athletes and their equipment.

2017 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited

The Hybrid is also a reality check. Take the 3.5 liter V6 and add on the Hybrid Synergy Drive system with two electric motors, a set of sealed Nickel-Metal Hydride batteries and regenerative braking. The combined net horsepower for this driveline is 306. Combine this with a Continuously variable Transmission and all-wheel drive, and you have quite the capable SUV. Even with a curb weight 4,861 pounds, the Highlander Hyrbid returned an average of 27.4 MPG. I normally average 20 MPG on other mid-sized SUVs. There is a catch to the fuel economy win – the Highlander Hybrid has a smaller fuel tank than its non-Hybrid brethren – a two gallon difference between the two models.

As a mid-sized SUV, the Highlander Hybrid rides very smoothly and provides a comfortable place for all occupants. That is all you need to know, right? Would your family want to ride in a buckboard with stiff seats, no space for bags and a wheezing driveline that gets stuck going halfway up the Rocky Mountains? This is why this segment is on the upswing lately. Yes, the average take per vehicle is $40,000 or more. However, families are seeing their worth as a vehicle that will do the job to take them across town from work to sports or music practice to the annual summer road trip.

Is the Toyota Highlander Hybrid the one for you? You would save on fuel. You might feel responsible to the planet to even individually support the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. You may pack your family and/or friends to a nearby amusement park sometime this summer. You can take one to a community festival or the local parade!

2017 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited

Toyota makes a solid product. Their design is getting to the point where people are really noticing. So, consider the Highlander while you're shopping around. In a resurgent segment, there's a lot of good choices to consider. You won't go wrong choosing the Toyota.

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Toyota Motor Sales USA

All photos by Randy Stern

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