Less power breeds more efficiency.
Less is more in the 2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, which trades its predecessor’s 3.5-liter V6 for a more fuel-efficient 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. As a result, the gasoline-electric crossover manages a manufacturer-estimated combined fuel economy figure of 36 miles per gallon – seven better than the prior model’s 29 mpg combined rating by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The loss of two cylinders, however, leaves the crossover with less grunt from its engine and electric motors. With a total of 243 horses, the Highlander Hybrid is down 63 ponies to last year’s model. Predictably, the three-row Toyota hybrid accelerates with less authority. Although the powertrain offers enough gumption to putter the crossover around the low-speed roads of Gruene, Texas at a reasonable pace, the gas engine and electric motors struggle to move the Highlander Hybrid’s more than 4,300 pounds of mass when passing slower moving traffic on the highways that lead to San Antonio, Texas. And that’s with a near-empty cabin. Add in passengers or cargo – or take advantage of the crossover’s 3,500-pound towing capacity – and the Highlander Hybrid is sure to struggle even more.
Still, it’s a flaw that most fuel misers will surely overlook. After all, those in search of extra oomph can always opt for the standard Highlander and its 295-hp 3.5-liter V6.
Fuel-Sipping City Crossover
Avoid the highways, and the Highlander Hybrid feels as competent as its six-cylinder counterpart. With plenty of low-end torque from its standard front-mounted electric drive motor and optional rear-mounted motor (a $1,600 to $1,950 extra depending on trim), the Highlander Hybrid leaves the line with reasonable authority. Use anything but a light right foot, though, and the gas engine belts out a cacophonous song that floods the cabin with needless noise. It’s the only noticeable external racket that enters the Highlander Hybrid’s passenger space, as wind and road noise are almost absent.
There’s a general stoicism to the Highlander Hybrid that’s – dare we say – Lexus like. Both the direct but numb steering and accelerator pedal react with certainty to inputs, while the somewhat mushy brake pedal predictably transitions from regenerative to mechanical braking. Soft springs favor a comfortable ride quality over dynamic capabilities. Although its body rolls through turns and dives during braking, the Toyota’s chassis remains well-sorted plodding about the twisting Texas tarmac. The Highlander Hybrid certainly doesn’t encourage its driver to engage with it, but the crossover also does what’s expected with aplomb.
In spite of its nickel-metal hydride battery pack that lives under the rear seats, the insides of the Highlander Hybrid are no less spacious than those of its V6 sibling. That’s a good thing, too, as the standard Highlander’s third row is already short on space.
Likewise, the Hybrid’s well put-together interior suffers from the same busy design and multitude of materials as the gas Highlander’s. Nevertheless, the crossover’s small rear row and overdone interior seem less egregious in the Highlander Hybrid than the six-cylinder model. Blame a lack of competition, as the only other mainstream full-size gasoline-electric crossover is the Ford Explorer Hybrid. Although the Ford’s 32.2 inches of third-row legroom betters the Toyota’s by 4.5 inches, its 318-hp powertrain’s 28 mpg combined rating by the EPA falls short of even the previous Highlander Hybrid’s combined fuel economy figure.
Ford also limits the gasoline-electric powertrain to the generously equipped Limited trim, which leaves the model with a starting price of $52,280. In contrast, the Highlander Hybrid’s $38,200 base price is more than $14,000 less than the Ford’s. It’s also $1,400 more than that of the equivalent Highlander V6.
Unlike its gas-sipping peer, though, the Highlander Hybrid forgoes the entry-level L trim for the better-equipped LE. As such, every Highlander Hybrid includes a power hatch, blind-spot monitor, LED fog lamps, and a leather-covered steering wheel rim and shift knob, as well as kit found in the Highlander L such as a proximity key, three-zone automatic climate control, adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go functionality, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, lane centering, and automatic high-beam headlights.
Of course, moving up the trim-level ladder adds to the Highlander Hybrid’s price. Yet, even the top-of-the-line Platinum trim’s $48,250 sum undercuts the least expensive Explorer Hybrid by more than $4,000. The flagship Highlander includes items such as a 12.3-inch touchscreen infotainment system, a 10.0-inch head-up display, a rearview mirror with a camera-fed display, heated middle-row bucket seats, a panoramic sunroof, and a surround-view camera. The Ford, meanwhile, makes do with an 8.0-inch infotainment screen (the Explorer’s optional 10.1-inch screen is only available on the hybrid-less Platinum and ST trims), lacks a head-up display or camera-fed rearview mirror, and asks buyers to spend $1,695 on a panoramic sunroof.
Short of opting for a battery-electric or plug-in gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle, there’s no more efficient three-row crossover than the Highlander Hybrid. The fact it’s powerful enough for typical day-to-day driving, quiet and composed on the road, and reasonably affordable all-but makeup for the gasoline-electric Highlander’s somewhat pokey highway acceleration, occasionally noisy four-cylinder engine, and cramped third row. The 2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid might offer less power than last year, but the gasoline-electric crossover makes more sense than ever as a relatively inexpensive and more efficient alternative to its V6-powered stablemate.