Toyota Highlander

The First Seven Passenger Hybrid SUV on the Market

In 2006 Toyota launched the Highlander Hybrid. It was the first ever seven passenger hybrid SUV to be manufactured and distributed in the automotive industry (the smaller Ford Escape Hybrid debuted in 2004). The hybrid was identical to the Toyota Highlander, a mid-size SUV, which made its debut in 2001; however it was capable of getting almost double the gas mileage. Critics and drivers alike were extremely impressed with the vehicle, and it has gotten even better over time.

Highlander Hybrid SUV

Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD)

The Highlander Hybrid runs on Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive, or HSD, drive train technology. It produces a full hybrid vehicle which lets the car run on the electric motor only at times. It combines a planetary gearset with an electric drive which performs similar to a continuously variable transmission. It is a drive-by-wire system with no direct mechanical connection between the engine controls and the engine. This means that the accelerator and the gearshift lever just send electrical signals to a control computer.

Toyota’s HSD system substitutes a normal geared transmission with an electromechanical system. A continuously variable transmission allows the automobile’s computer to effectively select the best gear ratio that is required for a desired speed. The transmission is not limited to a fixed set of gears. The lack of constraint frees up the engine to operate at its most efficient speed. This is why Toyota classifies its HSD-equipped vehicles as having an e-CVT (electronic continuously variable transmission) when they are required to for standards specification lists or regulatory purposes.

Toyota Introduces the Highlander Hybrid

Toyota released the Highlander Hybrid in 2006. Both the base model and the upscale Limited Model were available in either two or four wheel drive. Both were also powered by a 3.3-liter V6 engine combined with a high speed electric motor. Although it had a much different power source, the performance of the Highlander Hybrid did not deteriorate at all in comparison with the rest of the Highlander lineup. The high torque electric motor produced 268 horsepower and it was capable of towing up to 3500 pounds.

The 2007 Highlander Hybrid was a carry-over from 2006. With no significant changes to this model, reviews were about the same. Critics and drivers were impressed with the power the Highlander hybrid offered, the fact that it could go from 0-60 in under eight seconds, and the estimated combined 27 mpg it received.

In 2008 the Highlander Hybrid was completely redesigned. It showed off a longer, wider, and more aggressively curvaceous stance. With a new chassis that improved Hybrid technology, it was still the most fuel efficient seven-passenger vehicle on the market. With interior upgrades and minimal changes under the hood, this model of Highlander Hybrid seemed to be just as popular as the first.

It got another overhaul in 2011. With aesthetic updates like revised rocker panels, blue-tinted headlights, and a fresh front fascia, the Highlander Hybrid was looking better than ever. The 3.3-liter engine was also replaced with a 3.5-liter V6 which could crank out about 280 horsepower. Also, a second electric motor was added to all models to power the rear wheels, thus allowing for 4 wheel drive in all Highlander Hybrids.

cabin view highlander hybrid

The Newest Highlander Hybrid

In 2014 the world’s largest automaker redesigned the Highlander Hybrid again. Mechanical changes are minor, and the style is certainly new, but recognizable. The body is slightly longer and wider, giving passengers more interior space. Seating capacity has been expanded from seven to eight (in non hybrid models only).

Following in Toyota’s latest truck and SUV themes, the all new Highlander Hybrid has a new hood that merges nicely with the new trapezoidal grille. The headlamps wrap more deeply into the fenders, and the taillamps are more prominent and horizontal. The bodysides have newly chiseled contours and blistered fenders. Repositioned front roof pillars and larger rear glass improve the driver’s visibility.

The Highlander Hybrids body is nearly three inches longer than its predecessor, but it is still several inches shorter than typical three-row midsize crossovers. The height has been reduced 1.2 inches on the new model giving it a sleeker more stylish look and a potentially better fuel economy.

Another part of the Highlander Hybrids recent transformation is the interior styling. Toyota has added many soft-touch and accent-stitched interior panels. The quality is luxurious with a stitched dashboard, steering wheel and soft-touch, and high quality materials in important locations. The wide soft front seats and highly adjustable second row that reclines makes this vehicle extremely comfortable for drivers and passengers alike.

By adopting a three-passenger third-row bench seat, the new gas-only Highlander is able to fit eight passengers. The second row slides and the center section can be removed to create two bucket seats. Both rear seating rows also fold flat for more cargo space. It already had one of the highest cargo volumes in its class, but Toyota has now expanded the space behind the third row by 34 percent. Hybrid models come in Limited trim which eliminates the 2nd row bench seat (you get 2 captains chairs instead), so maximum seating is 7 passengers.

The Highlander Hybrid comes standard with Toyota’s Entune multimedia system with impressive voice command technology. They have also added a storage ledge below the climate controls for phones and other devices that can connect to the vehicle. The storage ledge provides a pass-through for cords and USB cables so there is no need for dangling cables that get caught up in everything. Base models also come equipped with Bluetooth phone connectivity and streaming audio, a USB port with iPod connectivity, a back-up camera, and auxiliary input among many other features.

profile view highlander hybrid

Value in its Class

Starting at $47,870 and rated at 27/28 MPG the Highlander Hybrid is a significant upgrade from the previous generation and models. With quality upgrades to important areas like cargo room, interior quality, and style the all new Highlander Hybrid offers fun and functionality to its drivers. Providing an excellent driving experience along with a competitive price range will definitely make this model stand out from the pack. Toyota has done it again with the all new Highlander Hybrid and we expect they will do it again with the next redesign.

Read previous reviews of the Toyota Highlander Hybrid here and view Consumer Reports 2016 model data here.


More Hybrid SUVs:

Hybrid Ford Escape
Hybrid Toyota Highlander
Hybrid Lexus RX 400h
Hybrid ML450



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