The new Highlander has been a hit for Toyota, and with it the company has moved back to the front of the ultra-competitive, large crossover segment. I first reported on it here after a short drive in California. A week with the Hybrid model has done nothing to undermine my initial conclusions, and has only increased my respect for what has been accomplished with the new model.
The Highlander’s styling is a home run; it looks upscale and sporty, especially when it rides on the bigger, 19-inch wheels of the top models. The aggressive grill and smashed windowline also draw the eye away from the carryover short wheelbase and long rear overhang. Inside it is a different world than the outgoing model (I owned one) with lots of soft-touch surfaces, nice detailing and great seating comfort and support. Demerits include cheap-feeling controls for temperature adjustment and a long reach to the dull looking touch screen interface. I also miss the old center row setup wherein you could quickly convert from bucket to bench seating.
That’s quickly forgotten once on the move, however. The new Highlander (in any form) is just so much nicer to drive than what it replaced. It blends much of the Mazda CX-9’s cornering acumen and steering precision with good ride quality and very high levels of refinement.
While the gasoline model still gets great service from the terrific corporate 3.5-liter V6, the Hybrid is in a class of its own, with deep reserves of torque from its electric motors and a turn of acceleration that will embarrass many premium vehicles. Drone from the continuously variable transmission is well suppressed, and no matter how hard you drive the Highlander Hybrid, it never dips below 24mpg. Highway runs frequently return an indicated 30mpg, amazing for such a large, fast carryall. My only real gripe is that this latest Highlander suffers from torque steer, as its new, “Dynamic” all wheel drive system only sends drive rearward once the front wheels start to get overwhelmed. Whether this will affect the superb stability my old one offered on icy roads remains an open question.
Perhaps the only real, current criticism of the Hybrid is that they are almost impossible to come by. Either Toyota underestimated demand or people have kenned to the crossover’s copious talents at a much faster pace than expected, but this Highlander model is basically completely sold out for the next six months.
EPA ratings: 27/28mpg
Price as tested: $50,650