Pricing starts at $40,450 in Canada, $35,085 in the US.
Hybrid pricing begins at $45,950 in Canada, $38,735 in the US.
For fuel efficiency and family duty, only one vehicle does it better: the Toyota Sienna.
Shopping for the next family vehicle can be a complex affair. With fuel prices constantly on the rise and EVs slowly trickling in, it is very possible that you won’t find exactly what it is you are looking for. That is until you consider the Toyota Highlander Hybrid.
For the moment, all-electric vehicles truly capable of handling family duty are all but non-existent. If one is available, it is out of reach for the vast majority of Canadian families. There are however many three-row SUVs on the market, but they come at a considerable cost: Fairly high fuel consumption. In fact, only the Highlander Hybrid is capable of real-world efficiency for a reasonably budget-friendly price.
With the exception of the Toyota Sienna, the Highlander with the hybrid powertrain sits at the crossroads of all things automotive for families. In late 2021, making a long-term commitment to a vehicle with an internal combustion engine or with an electric powertrain poses some risks, so why not have both?
There is a caveat, however, at least for some. The 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid’s performance reflects the image most have of hybrids. To an extent, efficiency comes at the expense of power and speed. Acceleration is occasionally laborious especially when loaded with passengers and gear. And although the Highlander Hybrid can tow up to 3,500 lbs, I cannot recommend it as the driving experience will suffer greatly.
In the name of absolute efficiency
The upside is, and I may have mentioned it, is incomparable fuel efficiency. Toyota rates the Highlander’s average numbers at 6.7L/100km. Best of all, my real-world returned average was under 7L/100km. This result makes the Hybrid more fuel miserly than nearly all midsize sedans and puts it on par with most compact cars!
The hybrid powertrain consists of a naturally-aspirated 2.5-litre Atkinson 4-cylinder engine and two accompanying electric motors, as part of the Toyota Hybrid System II. All told, the total system output is 243 horsepower. The front wheels are driven by an electronically controlled Continuously Variable Transmission (ECVT) with sequential shift mode. The rear axle holds an electric motor that is not mechanically connected to the front wheels. So yes, fuel efficiency and AWD.
I noted that performance is lackluster, and the reason is the eCVT which doesn’t actually “shift” or drop engines speeds with a set programmed ratio under acceleration. Insisting for more speed from the powertrain can and will result in an annoying drone from the engine and a little more. There is one way to quell this annoyance and that’s by setting the drive mode to ECO. This dulls throttle response to a level that is more on par with the Hybrid system’s raison-d’être.
The 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid’s ride quality is comfortable and cossetting. Assembled on Toyota’s Global Platform for its fourth generation, which launched for the 2020 model year, the Highlander is solid, pleasant, and surefooted. The brakes are good. Steering is good. There’s little more to say.
Attractive, spacious, and functional
The current Highlander is attractive. Truth be told, no Highlander before this one has ever projected a more “serious SUV” look. In some ways, especially for the Hybrid, the flared fenders, pronounced front facia, and tall beltline are making up for the SUV’s timid performance.
The cabin though is all about form, functionality, and getting family duties done. As with the Sienna, the Highlander’s interior is a testament to Toyota taking the job of building a truly family-friendly vehicle exceptionally seriously. Details such as several usable small parcel shelves along the dashboard, a hole to run a cable, a large central bin, and various other pockets make moving a breeze.
The third is snug for most average-sized adults. If your needs require a usable third row, you’re looking for a Sienna. Otherwise, no matter the trim, first and second-row occupants are served by plenty of room in all directions. The tested Limited with the Platinum package is fitted with second-row captain chairs which are always ideal for passengers. Boot space is generous at 453 litres behind the farthest row and 1,370 litres behind the middle row. Although these numbers are competitive in the segment, they pale severely to the Sienna’s (949 and 2,129 litres respectively).
As standard, the Highlander is fitted with an 8-inch touchscreen, intelligent cruise control, a power tailgate, satellite radio, and far more. For $45,950, the base LE AWD is well equipped. For an extra $2,500, the XLE AWD is the smartest trim with rear window sunshades, a power passenger seat, a moonroof, and more.
Fuel efficiency king
I’ve reviewed the only other currently available midsize three-row hybrid SUV in the segment and simply put, the Ford Explorer Hybrid is barely more efficient than the regular Highlander. The upcoming Kia Sorento Hybrid will challenge if match the Highlander Hybrid’s fuel economy ratings however it’s not as spacious as the Toyota.
As far as the Hyundai Santa Fe Hybrid is concerned, it too is not as roomy nor is it more efficient. As far as pricing for the latter is concerned, it is less expensive by about $2,000 and with more features. Its powertrain is slightly more enjoyable however I continue to be apprehensive about mid-and long term reliability.
The short of it is that the 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid (2022 already available) is in a class of its own and will fuel pump pains to a minimum.