You seldom get a second chance to make a first impression. I left the Cars.com $40,000 3-Row Challenge less than impressed with the conventional Toyota Highlander, but the 2014 Toyota Highlander's hybrid version turned me into a fan.
The 2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is the best version of the three-row SUV, with strong, smooth power and excellent fuel economy — as long as you can afford its steep price.
The Highlander and Highlander Hybrid were redesigned for 2014, with edgier styling, more cargo room, higher-quality interior materials and a new standard touch-screen multimedia system. We cover the Hybrid in this review; click here for our review of the gas-only version.
The Highlander Hybrid's main competitor is the Nissan Pathfinder Hybrid, the only other three-row gas/electric vehicle in the class. Because the Highlander's hybrid powertrain is available only in the top, Limited trim, it's similar in price (and size) to the two-row Lexus RX 450h; compare the three models here.
How It Drives
Although the Highlander took home a respectable third place in our 3-Row Challenge, it got a lot less love from me due to some bad habits: unruly road manners and the front-wheel-drive version's squirrely torque steer — a tendency to pull to one side or the other under heavier acceleration. In the all-wheel-drive-only hybrid, however, acceleration is more linear and immediate; it exhibits a surprising amount of gusto from a stop and still has strong, near-instantaneous reserves for the highway.
The hybrid pairs a 3.5-liter V-6 with three electric motors for a total of 280 horsepower; a four-cylinder hybrid isn't available. Like the previous-generation hybrid, it can cruise at low speeds solely on electric power, and I found it easy to sustain EV mode at around-town speeds. The transition from EV to gas is impressively seamless. In EV mode, the car gives off a subtle, futuristic whir. A continuously variable automatic is the sole transmission; it makes itself known with some engine drone, but it's not enough to be intrusive. In fact, I found the hybrid model much quieter overall, with better isolation from engine harshness and road noise.
Fuel economy is another high point, with an EPA rating of 27/28/28 mpg city/highway/combined; the regular all-wheel-drive V-6 model is rated 18/24/20 mpg. All-wheel-drive versions of the Nissan Pathfinder Hybrid are EPA-rated 25/27/26, and the V-6-powered Lexus RX 450h comes in a touch higher, at 30/28/29 with all-wheel drive. During my 214-mile, mostly highway trip, I averaged an excellent 29.8 mpg.
The Highlander Hybrid performed solidly on the highway, with a firm but not uncomfortable ride and adequate bump absorption; overall, the ride was smoother than what you'll find in the non-hybrid V-6. In terms of handling, the Hybrid felt less buttoned-down while cornering, with light, dull steering and lots of body roll. Braking, however, was another surprising high point. The regenerative brakes are more responsive and have a more natural pedal feel than many other hybrids.
Because the hybrid powertrain's availability is limited to top-of-the-line Limited and Limited Platinum versions, the cabin finishes are appropriately upscale. Plush standard leather seats and convincing matte wood-like trim, mixed with chrome, replace the boring, cheap-feeling hard plastic in other versions, giving the Limited a Lexus-like look and feel.
A second-row bench seat is standard on the regular Highlander, making for a total of eight seats, but that's replaced by two sliding bucket seats and a seven-occupant maximum in the Hybrid. The buckets are separated by a pop-up cupholder and console tray; a storage bin would have been more useful, but the setup is still convenient. Families will also appreciate a couple other thoughtful features: the first row's conversation mirror and the second-row's pull-up sunshades. They're small touches, but they make the cabin more comfortable.
Headroom and legroom are plentiful, so even adults will be comfortable in the second row. The third row is another story. Getting back there is pretty easy: The second-row seats collapse and slide forward in one motion, opening a decent-sized walkway to the third row. Kids should also be able to fit between the bucket seats for third-row access. Sitting back there, however, is tough. Although it technically has three seats, not even one adult passenger can get comfortable without some contortions. The seat is firm and flat, and with just 26.7 inches of legroom, it trails the competition by several inches; overall, it's one of the smallest third rows in the segment.
Ergonomics & Electronics
The climate and audio controls mirror the non-hybrid version's and are a highlight of the cabin. The Entune Premium Audio with Navigation and App Suite is standard on Hybrid models. Its 8-inch touch-screen is clear and large, and apps like Pandora internet radio integrated seamlessly with my Android phone.
The system offers users plenty of control choices — knobs, touch-screen, touch-sensitive panels and buttons — but I found it easy to cut through the visual clutter. It was simple to use the audio present menu and input a destination in the navigation system. I found the navigation system's location presets especially helpful on a test drive filled with many new places.
A couple of oddities to note: The new available Easy Speak system is a strange gimmick. It transmits your (possibly stern) voice to the rear speakers, helping get your point across to your (possibly misbehaving) kids in back. The system worked, but required a deep dive into several menus — so the kids will probably laugh at you by the time you get there. Minus one point for mom.
More obnoxious were the issues I had with the standard power liftgate. It's a flexible system that allows you to adjust the cargo door's height depending on how tall your garage is or how short your arms are — when it works: After loading the crossover with luggage, I couldn't get the hatch to close using the power button. I just shut it manually, instead, but once inside the car warning lights illuminated and a tone sounded, alerting me that the hatch was still open. After a quick perusal of the owner's manual, I turned off the power function via a glove-box button and was never able to get it to work during my test.
Cargo & Storage
Many families opt for a three-row SUV in place of a minivan, but if you're thinking the Highlander offers as much cargo room as a minivan, think again. It even offers much less than its competitors: The hybrid model's cargo dimensions virtually mirror the gas version's, with just 13.8 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third row — and that's more than 3 cubic feet more than last year. The Pathfinder Hybrid has 16.0 cubic feet of space behind the third row.
With the third row folded, space increases to 42.3 cubic feet — still short of the Pathfinder's 47.8 cubic feet but a touch more than the RX 450h's 40 cubic feet. The second-row buckets fold in two easy steps, and the resulting floor is flat enough for loading and comfortably hauling long items.
The Highlander outshines the competition when it comes to small-items storage, however. I flat out love the huge, purse-friendly center console. Toyota says it can hold up to 60 juice boxes, and it sure can. There's also plenty of small, shallow cubbies peppered throughout the first row, including a handy multimedia ledge for connecting and storing devices. If juice boxes aren't your style, there's also no shortage of cup- and bottleholders for all three rows.
The Highlander Hybrid received an overall crash-test score of five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the highest rating. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has not yet tested the hybrid model, but the gas version earned the agency's highest score, Top Safety Pick Plus, thanks to an acceptable rating in the small-overlap frontal test and good scores in all other categories; it also received an advanced grade in front crash prevention.
Standard features across the Highlander lineup include a backup camera and hill start assist. A blind spot monitoring system and rear parking assist with cross-traffic alert are standard on hybrids. Newly available options include radar-enabled adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and a front precollision system that warns the driver of an impending crash and assists with braking. Click here for a full list of safety features.
The Highlander performed well in our Car Seat Check, and models with the bench seat can even hold three seats across the second row this year. The addition of a third-row tether anchor also means a forward-facing car seat can safely be used there.
Value in Its Class
The Highlander Hybrid is comfortable, refined and efficient, but that combination isn't very affordable. It starts at $48,160, quite a bit higher than the Pathfinder Hybrid ($37,760 with all-wheel drive) and much higher than the base gas-powered V-6 Highlander ($32,840 with all-wheel drive) — putting the Hybrid firmly in Lexus territory. The all-wheel-drive RX 450h starts at $48,720. All prices include destination charges.
Because the Hybrid setup is available only in the top two Highlander trims, loads of extra comfort and convenience features help soften its steep price premium, but Toyota is letting its customers down by not offering the hybrid's efficiency on less-expensive models.