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2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Test Drive Review
Do you want a midsize, three-row, eight-passenger crossover SUV that protects your loved ones in a crash, effortlessly gets more than 30 miles per gallon, and carries almost 85 cubic feet of cargo? If so, then the 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is your dream car.
There comes a time in everyone’s life when practicality rules. Usually, it arrives shortly before or after having children. In many ways, the 2021 Toyota Highlander is purpose-built to provide that practicality—especially in hybrid form. Redesigned for the 2020 model year, the 2021 Highlander adds a sporty XSE trim level (V6 models only), improved headlights on lower trim levels, and an upgraded Toyota Safety Sense 2.5+ collection of safety features. These changes can only make the Highlander a more appealing choice in a highly competitive segment.
Look and Feel
Ubiquity begets ordinary. What looks sharply polarizing at first will, over time and with regular exposure, become indistinctly familiar. This might help to explain why modern Toyotas require, shall we say, an acclimation period. The automaker wants them to remain distinctive even after putting hundreds of thousands of examples of them on American roads.
Still fresh enough to look funky, the 2021 Toyota Highlander’s blunt and bulbous nose presents an angry visage while placing a bunch of visual weight over the SUV’s front wheels. Black windshield pillars that make the roof appear to float over the SUV’s window glass magnifies this impression. Swollen haunches help to balance the Highlander's styling, but even when equipped with 20-inch wheels, the cartoonishly-flared quarter panels overwhelm the design. But with time, it’s possible the Highlander will look tame.
To get 20-inch wheels on a Highlander, you need XSE, Limited, or Platinum trim levels. More affordable Highlanders include the L, LE, and XLE trims. They all come with a standard 3.5-liter V6 engine, or you can spend an extra $1,400 for a hybrid powertrain. However, the 2021 Highlander Hybrid is offered only with LE, XLE, Limited, or Platinum specifications. Pricing ranges from $38,410 to $48,365, plus destination charges, which can vary depending on the region in which you live.
For this review, we evaluated a 2021 Highlander Hybrid Limited with optional electronic all-wheel drive (AWD), which uses a separate electric motor to power the rear wheels, a no-cost second-row bench seat, a 12.3-inch touchscreen infotainment system, a surround-view camera system, a cargo liner, carpeted floor mats, and roof rack crossbars. With the $1,175 destination fee, it came to $50,008 MSRP.
For that kind of money, you rightly expect quality. Overall, Toyota executes this well, but as we noticed while sitting at a traffic light drumming fingers to music on the instrument-panel shroud, the company missed this detail. It sounds loud and hollow under each impact of your fingertips, which equates to cheap.
When you choose an interior color other than black, the cabin features an appealingly upscale two-tone look, with standard soft and supple leather for Limited and Platinum trim levels. An asymmetrical element housing the infotainment and climate controls dominates the dashboard, but the larger 12.3-inch screen and its surrounding gloss black detailing can suffer from significant reflections on sunny days. Controls are sensibly laid out, but at night the mix of white, blue, and green illumination and graphics gives the gauges a busy appearance.
Prior to its most recent redesign, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid used a V6 engine that could get up to 29 mpg in combined driving (28 mpg for most trim levels), according to the EPA. Total output measured 306 horsepower and AWD was standard.
Now, the Highlander Hybrid uses a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and is EPA-rated to return 36 mpg in combined driving (35 mpg with AWD). Total output measures 243 hp, and AWD is optional rather than standard. Front-wheel drive (FWD) is now the default. As before, the hybrid uses what Toyota calls an "E-CVT," which uses the electric motors to mimic an automatic transmission.
Is this progress? Let’s compare the new Highlander Hybrid to the previous-generation version. When we last tested a previous-generation Highlander Hybrid, it returned an average of 24.6 mpg, coming up short of its EPA rating by 3.4 mpg. The 2021 test vehicle averaged 31.7 mpg, falling short of expectations by 4.3 mpg.
So, yes, in terms of efficiency, this is progress. Where else are you going to get an SUV of this size that effortlessly delivers small-car fuel economy numbers? Just know that you pay a price for the improved efficiency. The 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is absolutely no fun to drive unless hypermiling gets you all hot and bothered.
Power is adequate, and no more. You’ll be able to climb hills and mountain grades in the Highlander Hybrid, and you’ll get it up to freeway speeds by the end of the ramp. But this drivetrain sounds strained when accelerating hard or simply ascending a hill, droning and groaning in an unbecoming way. On flat terrain, under low-load circumstances, you won’t notice much racket. But if you live in a hilly area, it’s a regular assault on your ears.
Lifeless and dull steering doesn’t help matters, but fortunately, the regenerative brakes operate in a transparent fashion the majority of the time and represent an improvement over the previous-generation version. The softly sprung Highlander Hybrid isn’t shy about throwing its 4,595 pounds around, either. There is plenty of unwanted body movement in the ride and handling, which means an adaptive damping or air-suspension option would be swell.
On glass-smooth mountain roads with properly banked corners, such as California 150 as it flows down the Dennison Grade into Ojai, California, this SUV adopts a flat cornering stance and demonstrates capable handling. Add bumps, dips, and other pavement undulations and the Highlander Hybrid devolves into a sloppy mess in no time at all.
Around town, the immediate electric motor torque and the electric-only EV Mode reveal the Highlander Hybrid’s greatest strengths, and while cruising on the freeway the SUV is a cushy and quiet conveyance. But at no time is this SUV enjoyable to drive, and if you or a member of your family suffers motion sickness, make sure you carry barf bags on board.
When we reviewed a 2019 Highlander Hybrid, we lauded the SUV’s power and fairly athletic driving dynamics. After last year’s redesign, both have vanished. But hey, the new Highlander Hybrid does get better fuel economy.
Form and Function
In terms of comfort, the Highlander Hybrid Limited provides roomy and supportive accommodations for the driver and front passenger. The driver enjoys 10-way power seat adjustment, while the front passenger settles for six fewer ways to move the seat. The test vehicle included a heated steering wheel, leather upholstery, and both front seats offered heating and ventilation.
Second-row captain’s chairs are standard in most Highlander Hybrids, but the test vehicle had the no-cost bench seat option. This increases seating capacity to eight people, but the Highlander feels narrow, and putting three adults in the second row is unlikely to make any of them happy. Also, the overhead air vents blow directly on occupants’ heads, which is a source of irritation. The seat is comfortable, though, and slides back and forth on a track to maximize room or make extra space for third-row passengers.
The third-row seat is not comfortable. It is low, flat, and lacking in support, and with the second-row bench seat installed occupants cannot stretch their legs during the trip. Headroom is tight for grown-ups, too, and getting in and out requires Barnum and Bailey degrees of contortion. If you’re looking for a three-row midsize SUV good for six adults, check out the Volkswagen Atlas.
Storage is plentiful but not as generous as the previous-generation Highlander. The handy dashboard shelf isn’t as accommodating, and while the latest version of the SUV retains the useful roll-top center armrest and storage bin design, it seems smaller than it used to be. Plus, in the test vehicle, it opened to reveal a wireless smartphone charger that blocked access to the storage area below. Toyota really ought to relocate the charger to a position forward of the transmission shifter.
Cargo space behind the third-row seat measures 16 cubic feet. Fold it down (it’s almost useless anyway) and the Highlander holds a generous 48.4 cubic feet of your stuff. Maximum capacity measures 84.3 cubic feet. Toyota provides a shallow storage tray under the cargo floor, but anything you place there will mix with the tire changing tools.
Inexplicably, Toyota does not offer storage wells on either side of the cargo floor where you can securely place milk jugs or wine bottles after a grocery-shopping trip, but perhaps that’s just an issue for versions of the SUV that have the JBL sound system’s subwoofer taking up space in the left cargo panel.
At a minimum, every 2021 Highlander is equipped with Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa connectivity. The standard infotainment system also includes a three-month trial subscription to satellite radio, a three-month/2GB trial of free WiFi Connect service, and a year-long trial of Safety Connect, which includes features such as automatic collision notification. A head-up display (HUD) is available on the Platinum trim level, along with rain-sensing wipers.
The test vehicle had the top infotainment system—an optional upgrade with Limited trim—and standard equipment with the Platinum trim. It includes a 12.3-inch touchscreen display, which replaces the standard 8-inch display, along with an 11-speaker JBL premium audio system, a navigation system with three free years of availability, and one-year trial periods of Remote Connect and Destination Assist connected services.
From a user-experience perspective, Toyota does a good job with the infotainment system and its controls. Large stereo volume and tuning knobs flank an array of climate controls. Four main-menu shortcut buttons line up underneath the display for quick access to the home screen, settings menu, audio system, and navigation map. The Highlander’s voice recognition system works well, but it does not operate the climate controls.
Boasting 1,200 watts of power and Clari-Fi digital music restoration technology, the 11-speaker JBL sound system promised good things. Placed in all default settings, the system sounded boomy and muddy with bass-heavy music and tinny and brassy with other types we listened to. But I’m no audiophile, so your results may vary.
Toyota offers its Driver Easy Speak technology in the Highlander, which projects the driver’s voice through the stereo speakers to ease conversation with rear passengers. A video rearview mirror is also available, providing an unobstructed 180-degree view of what’s behind the Highlander. This is great to have when exiting slanted parking spaces because when you turn around to look to the rear you cannot see past the second-row head restraints and through the SUV’s rear quarter glass.
Between the gauges, a driver information display offers a wealth of detail as you scroll through various menus and data panels, including a page for adjusting the driver-assist settings.
Toyota Safety Sense 2.5+ (TSS 2.5+) is an impressive collection of driver-assist tech. For 2021, it adds intersection support to the forward-collision warning system, which means it can prevent you from making an ill-advised left turn across traffic when it isn’t safe. Emergency steering assistance is also new (usually called evasive steering assistance by other car companies). It helps to keep the Highlander stable when the driver takes sudden evasive action to avoid an obstacle.
Rather than explain everything TSS 2.5+ includes, it’s easier to tell you what it lacks. In order to get blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, you must upgrade from the base Highlander L to the LE trim, where both are standard. The Highlander also has front and rear parking sensors starting with Limited trim, and a surround-view camera system with a perimeter-scanning function is optional for the Limited and standard on the Platinum trim.
In use, the Highlander’s TSS 2.5+ is effective. The adaptive cruise control can occasionally feel uneven as it applies inconsistent braking to maintain distance, and it can slightly overreact when vehicles cut into the gap ahead. A curve speed adaptation function offers three driver-selected settings, but with it set to medium sensitivity it didn’t start to slow the SUV until I’d already turned the Highlander into a long, sweeping curve on a freeway transition ramp, making the vehicle feel a little unsettled in the process. Evidently, it is not a predictive technology.
During testing, the Highlander’s lane-centering assistance system seemed overly sensitive, trying too hard to put the Highlander in the exact center of the lane with regular steering corrections and a bit of a nervous pinball sensation. However, we observed this while driving in moderately heavy traffic, so it is possible that vehicles ahead limited the distance down the road that the system could “see.” Fortunately, you can shut the lane-centering assistance off, leaving the lane-departure warning and lane-keep assist systems standing ready to correct any wandering.
For the 2020 calendar year, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gave the Highlander a “Top Safety Pick” rating. The 2021 Highlander’s new standard headlights should improve this score to the highest "Top Safety Pick+," but as this review is published, that remains unknown. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gave the Highlander a five-star overall rating, but in frontal-impact crash tests, the SUV earned four-star ratings for the driver and front passenger.
Math isn’t our strongest suit, but based on our calculations, it will take 2.9 years to recoup the added cost of the Highlander Hybrid’s powertrain when compared to the standard V6 engine. Thereafter, it can save its owners more than $480 annually. We based this on an assumed 15,000 miles of driving per year and a cost of $2.16 per gallon of gas (the AAA national average on the day this review was written). In regions where gas is more expensive, the Highlander Hybrid pays for itself sooner.
If you’re leasing, a Highlander Hybrid doesn’t make much sense. But if you’re buying, especially with the intent to keep the SUV for a long time, it certainly is cost-effective to pay for the $1,400 upgrade to the hybrid powertrain. Also, don’t forget the unusually generous trial periods to connected services and Toyota’s free scheduled maintenance plan for two years or 25,000 miles, adding a little bit of icing to the cost-effectiveness cake.
Unfortunately for Toyota, there is more to an enjoyable ownership experience than just saving money.
The previous-generation Highlander Hybrid was easy to recommend, even though its value proposition was harder to justify. That’s because it didn’t compromise power and driving dynamics in the pursuit of maximum fuel efficiency. Now, the Highlander Hybrid delivers fantastic fuel economy seemingly at the expense of any semblance of driving enjoyment.
These need not be mutually exclusive characteristics. If Toyota can find a way to eliminate the incessant powertrain droning, tighten up the ride and handling, and add some life to the steering, while also addressing some of the “form and function” issues discussed in this review, the Highlander Hybrid would be a far more compelling family-sized SUV.
Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience reviewing cars and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, J.D. Power, the New York Daily News, Autobytel, and Vehix. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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