When the 2011 Highlander Hybrid was announced last fall, it finally fit into our family friendly reader demographic.  I had actually considered buying a 2006 “HiHy” back when I bought my minivan.  It lacked family seating flexibility at the time, due to a minimal set of top tether anchors, an optional 3rd row seat that folded in one piece and fuel economy that was actually lower on the highway than my Honda Odyssey.

That changed for 2011 with a mid-cycle refresh.  Well, it’s still lacking anything more than the minimum of LATCH and top tethers, though families with older kids like mine may no longer need them.  The updated model improved its fuel economy slightly overall and includes Exhaust Gas Recirculation and Cooled Exhaust Heat Recovery systems found on the Lexus RX450h to improve cold weather fuel economy.  Toyota added a standard, split-folding third row seat, too.  The Hybrid also received a facelift in front, blue optitron guages inside and blue trim touches outside.  Until some company has the guts to make a hybrid minivan, there’s really only one contender for the fuel efficient family truckster category if you can still find one.  The 2011 Highlander Hybrid.  This also applies as a 2012 Toyota Highlander Hybrid review as the new model is essentially unchanged.  Let’s start this review with its main selling point.

Fuel Economy:

Some drivers will break even on a hybrid quickly, if they drive a lot of miles when gas is expensive.  More important to other families, however, is simply cutting their use of gasoline.  This not only reduces pollution and greenhouse gases (EPA Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle rating), but it also cuts dependence on foreign oil.  Gas mileage is perhaps the best reason to consider a 2011 Highlander Hybrid.  EPA estimates of 28 city, 28 highway and 28 overall don’t sound all that great, but according to www.fueleconomy.gov, it’s about 50% better than competitive models like the Honda Pilot, Ford Flex, Mazda CX-9 or Chevy Traverse that typically get only 16-17 mpg in town, 18-19mpg overall.

Update: After over 7000 miles, mostly around the Chicago suburbs, I’ve averaged about 31 miles per gallon.  Around town, I routinely get in the mid-30s without much effort.  On the highway, with more typical driving habits or on very short trips, I find 28-31mpg is typical in warmer weather.  Similar to our Prius, fuel economy does drop considerably when temperatures near freezing.  Under good conditions, the cruising range on the 17.2 gallon tank is 500 miles or more.  By increasing my tire pressures to 40psi and driving more conservatively with frequent coasting and gliding to force the internal combustion engine off, I recorded 39mpg over 600 miles on my most recent tank (photo, right) around town in the Chicago suburbs.  The Highlander Hybrid uses regular 87 octane gas.

But what if you don’t need V6 power or you live in an urban or suburban area where AWD isn’t necessary?  Are there any other options for vehicles that seat 7 or more passengers and still get reasonable fuel economy?  I list the closest competitors for fuel economy with 3 rows of seating below.  Keep in mind that most are smaller SUVs, with 4-cylinder engines and optional AWD and 3rd row seating packages.  I include the most fuel efficient minivan for comparison, too.  The new 2012 Mazda 5 may also be a nice choice in this segment.  Next year, Ford’s C-Max crossover may offer another option.

Of these, the Kia Sorento 2WD is a very reasonable alternative for larger families.  Even though a little smaller and much less powerful than the Highlander Hybrid, it still gets reasonable fuel economy, seats 7 passengers, has good crash test results and costs much less.  If you don’t need AWD, the fantastic Honda Odyssey Touring is another great option.  It is significantly bigger than the Highlander Hybrid and offers much more flexible seating and cargo options, making it a much more practical choice than almost any midsize or full size SUV for those who don’t need serious off-road or towing capability.  Stay tuned for our long term review updates of the Odyssey Touring this summer!  The Toyota RAV4 and Mitsubishi Outlander also offer similar fuel economy as the Sorento, but their crash test performance isn’t quite as good as the other choices.

Update: The 2012 Kia Sorento now has a more fuel efficient powertrain.  With front wheel drive and the optional 4-cylinder GDI engine, the EPA rates it at 22 city, 32 highway, 25 overall.  It also improved on one NHTSA side impact test and retains a 4-star overall crash test rating.

Back to the Highlander, my only complaint is that Toyota didn’t go far enough.  They could have offered a 2WD version of the Highlander Hybrid, as they do with the Lexus RX Hybrid.  So why not make AWD an option, just for those who actually need it?  A large V6 with 280 combined horsepower is great, but it’s really overkill for why most people want a hybrid (to save gas!).  Why not a more fuel efficient 4-cylinder gas engine?  Take some ideas used in the Prius and shave a few hundred pounds with greater use of high strength steel, aluminum and eliminate heavy features like power seats.  Lower the ground clearance a bit.  Really, I see no reason this vehicle shouldn’t be rated over 30mpg city, highway and overall.  Most families looking at hybrids want great gas mileage, so why not offer that instead of performance, if only on the base model?  I think many buyers would give up some towing capacity, AWD and a couple seconds in 0-60 times to get a few more miles per gallon and to shave hundreds or possibly thousands off the base price!

Someday, some wise auto manufacturer will offer a 7-passenger vehicle optimized for even better fuel economy, perhaps in hybrid or turbo diesel form.  Until then, the Highlander Hybrid is the best there is for fuel efficient vehicles with 3-rows of seating.

A dozen cheers:

  1. As the chart above shows, it has solid crash test results with an overall NHTSA 4-star rating.  It received 5-stars in all the side impact tests, including those for rear-seat passengers.  The Highlander Hybrid is an IIHS top safety pick for 2011.  At the time of this blog, it is in the top 8% of vehicles in the InformedForLife.org universe.  It includes Toyota’s standard Star Safety package, but adds Lexus inspired VDIM (Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management).
  2. Third row seat became standard in 2011 and now it now folds in two sections.  The split feature is very important for families with 3 kids, like us, where you want one kid in back but could still use more cargo space from time to time.
  3. The second row is very flexible and comfortable.  Plenty of leg room with adjustable captain’s chairs and a stowable middle seat, much like some minivans.  You can replace the center seat with a cupholder/storage tray or leave it as an aisle for third row access (photo, right).
  4. Standard features include some nice stuff, like a backup camera, bluetooth streaming audio, hands-free phone with steering wheel controls, XM Radio, Easy clean cloth fabric from Yes Essentials.
  5. The ride is very smooth and quiet.  Seems to be less electronic noise than our Prius, too.
  6. Third row and second row seats (via levers in the cargo area) easily fold flat to make a very large cargo space.
  7. Thank you, Toyota, for keeping the full size spare.  Some cars are now coming with a can of air/sealant!  ToyotaCare is now included on all Toyotas, giving you 2 years or 25,000 miles of scheduled maintenance and roadside assistance, in case you ever have to use that spare! (ToyotaCare only covers oil changes every 10,000 miles on this model, meaning only 2 changes for the duration).
  8. 280 HP gets you going 0-60 in 7.4 seconds  (according to Edmunds.com), the quarter mile in 15.4 seconds and can tow 3500 pounds.  But, the beauty of the hybrid is that you can accept the challenge of accelerating slower and anticipate gradual braking to save fuel.  That not only makes driving a little more fun, but you drive safer as a bonus!
  9. Saves you a foot of length compared to most minivans- handy in your garage or for parallel parking! (Also a con, that room comes out of the third row legroom and cargo space behind the third row).
  10. No fake, plastic wood here!  The interior is well done in a nice two tone color scheme.  All the controls are within easy reach and everything looks and feels how I would expect.  The trip computer display also serves as a small, backup camera and works well with a slight fisheye view.  Four cupholders and two accessory outlets, plus audio iPod/USB and auxiliary input jacks.
  11. The 7.3″ ground clearance may not be ideal for fuel economy, but it is great for avoiding bumper scrapes.  The seating is high enough for a good view, too, but my 5-year old can still climb easily into the back seats.
  12. Rear liftgate opens in two sections, glass or door.  The glass section is opened electronically on the keyfob.  This doesn’t seem to gain you a lot, but could be handy in a tight spot or a garage if the door is closed or something.

A Dozen Jeers:

  1. Toyota could really learn from Honda in terms of equipping family vehicles with additional LATCH and top tether locations, beyond the minimum of two LATCH and one extra top tether.  Even a smaller SUV like the Honda CR-V gives you an extra LATCH location in the middle of the second row.  The new Odyssey sets the standard in this area, taking over from the previous generation Sienna.  I’m not sure why Toyota misses this point on vehicles targeted toward families with young kids.
  2. No Safety Connect (emergency assistance and collision notification), lane departure warning or collision warning system, even on Limited trim.  For a mid-cycle refresh on a vehicle at this price point, these key safety features should be at least an option, if not standard.  Chevrolet includes OnStar emergency assistance standard on the the base Cruze LS compact sedan that is less than half the price.  Toyota offers all these features on the less expensive Prius V hybrid.  So why not offer them at all on the Highlander?  Quite a sad omission for a vehicle marketed to families.
  3. Third row seat has limited legroom.  Compounding the problem is the seating that is low to the floor, making it such that even older kids have their knees in the air when seated there.  As mentioned, it lacks top tether anchors.  That makes it ideal only for kids from 4-12 years old in a high back booster that seats them a little higher (like my 10-year old daughter (photo, left side).  The seatbelts are not ideally designed for younger kids, as the shoulder belt actually comes forward of the torso for a smaller body, making a high back booster the preference to a backless one for smaller kids in that spot.  An older kid like my 12-year old son (photo, right) or small adult would be fine there for short trips.
  4. The voice control system for phone and audio is very tedious.  It requires too many button presses and verbal commands to do simple tasks and often misunderstands them.  By contrast, the system in the Acura TSX Wagon I tested recently was a joy in comparison.  Heck, it could auto import my entire contact list.  In the Highlander, I had the chore of doing name imports one at a time and also had to issue commands from the phone’s bluetooth menu to complete the task.
  5. No Smart Key?  Really?  This is lame.  A base model Prius has it.  Why give me a key that does essentially nothing?  At least give me a nice “switch blade” style key so it takes up less room in my pocket next to the Prius’ Smart Key.
  6. In a high-tech car, how ’bout a simple feature like Homelink for garage doors?  At this price point, it doesn’t seem necessary to omit.  I understand expensive stuff like heated leather seats, a moonroof, 19″ wheels/tires, auto climate control, power lift gates and such are often reserved for top trim levels, as they are for the Highlander Hybrid Limited.  But Homelink?  C’mon, Toyota!  Throw us a bone.
  7. Mediocre Tires.  I also get equipping the lowest common denominator rubber on base model economy cars.  Slapping on generic Bridgestone Dueler H/L 400 here with relatively poor ratings is also lame.  Keep the S-rated, 400 treadwear tires with B-ratings for traction & temperature and minimal warranty for entry level compact SUVs.  If you insist on all-season psuedo-truck tires, then a set of General Grabber HTS, Continental CrossContact LX, Michelin Latitude Tour or even Goodyear Assurance CS FuelMax would have been acceptable given the price point for this vehicle.
  8. The cost is high, even before they started to become hard-to-find recently.  Mine had an MSRP of $38,475 including an $810 destination charge, the $60 cold weather package and $315 carpeted floor mats and cargo mat.  There is also a $650 price increase effective for new shipments arriving in May.  That’s approaching the range of luxury-class SUVs.  Compared to a similarly-equipped base Highlander V6 AWD with the tech package, the hybrid is just over $5,000 more expensive.  According to fuelconomy.gov estimates for typical drivers, that’s about a 5-year break even time with gas at $4 a gallon (it’s closer to $4.50 in Chicago right now!).  The hybrid models had been selling for near invoice price a month or two ago, but you may be paying closer to MSRP today, if you can find one.  On the plus side, owners conserve oil and reduce emissions from day one.
  9. Why did you hit the hybrid’s front end with the ugly stick for 2011?  I guess it lends extra distinction to the hybrid, as there are so few on the road, but it would have been nice to have something distinctive that also looked sharp.  Overall, the styling is somewhat boring, neither rugged nor sporty.  I do like the blue accents Toyota uses for its hybrids, but really, shouldn’t they be GREEN?
  10. I love EV mode for stop and go traffic.  It’s somewhat functional in our Prius.  In the Highlander Hybrid, more often than not, I get “EV mode not available”.  A big disappointment.
  11. A few other reviews have noted droning engine noise during acceleration and at highway speeds due to the new-for-2011 motor and the continuously variable transmission used to maximize efficiency.  Compared to other cars I’ve driven recently, I didn’t note anything unusual, though it is clearly audible when you floor it.  For those expecting luxury-class noise/vibration/harshness or a sports-car acceleration growl, then perhaps this one may be worth mentioning for sake of completeness.
  12. Nitpicking here, but the doors and hatch don’t close as easily as I’d expect sometimes.  If you are coming from a minivan, you will probably miss power sliding doors!

The Drive:

Just a few comments here.  The handling is OK, but subjectively not as good as my larger Honda minivan.  It’s a bit “wallowy” in sharp turns and the steering isn’t nearly as tight.  There’s a lot less feel of the road.  I suppose that’s a tradeoff some will like, given the quiet and smooth ride.  No, it’s not going to power through twisty roads, but really, there aren’t a whole lot of 3-row vehicles intended for sporty driving.  Braking, as on our Prius, seems quite responsive and secure.  I suspect handling and braking could be slightly improved with better quality tires.  Toyota has generally been exonerated from claims about braking and acceleration issues in recent months, so really there is no concern at all, even without the new Smart Stop technology present on the Highlander.  Speaking of acceleration, it’s zippy and smooth.  You don’t want to show off the power and torque often, because it affects the great fuel economy, but it’s there if you need it!  No issues with comfort in the first row or in the second row outboard seats.  They’re roomy, supportive and fine on longer trips.  Visibility is decent; no worse than most minivans and SUVs.  There are blind spots in the rear corners that can be mostly mitigated with proper rear view mirror adjustment.  No issues with rear visibility while backing, due to the standard camera.

Kids and Carseats:

Many comments in this section apply to all trim levels, not just the hybrid.  The Highlander is not going to replace a minivan for bigger families.  Though it can seat 7, the third row seat has very limited use.  On long trips, the third row simply does not compare to a minivan or full size SUV in terms of seating comfort and cargo space.  Of course, you can always put cargo on the roof or in a trailer hitch tray (3500 pound towing capacity), but you still need kids of the right age to occupy the third row seat without being uncomfortable on a long trip.  Plus, there’s nothing like power sliding doors when you have a larger family!  The Highlander Hybrid is really more for families with 2-4 younger kids who are willing to compromise a bit to get a minivan alternative with good fuel economy.

I’ve already touched on some of the child safety seat issues.  The second row is generally quite good.  The buckle stalks are neither too long nor too short (like they are in our Prius).  The head restraints can be removed to fit larger seats.  LATCH is present on both captain’s chairs, with a third top tether anchor integrated into the removable center seat.  There is plenty of  room for a rear-facing carseat, still leaving good legroom up front, too.  The second row is reasonably wide, enough to fit three carseats across if you select them carefully.  The seat behind the passenger in the second row folds and moves well forward for third row access.  If you install a child seat there, you may impact access to the third row, unless you leave the center as an aisle.  My son also likes to climb into the third row from the back hatch.

I generally had minimal issues with child safety seat installation in the outboard seats in the second row.  One surprising omission is that the outboard shoulder belts are not height adjustable, though this is more of an issue for adults and teens using seatbelts.  The center seat is narrow, however, so it is best suited for a narrow booster or smaller occupant in a seatbelt.   A narrower front-facing seat may result in an acceptable fit, but will overlap the seat behind the driver because of the placement of the seatbelt anchors.  Some infant seat bases and rear-facing seats will be problematic in the center, due to the design of the outboard seat structure.  One seat that can fit rear-facing is the Sunshine Kids Radian, as its rear-facing recline block perfectly fits between the outboard seat structure.  Even with this model, it requires some effort to make sure it is securely installed.  Any carseat used in the center will likely prevent the movement or folding of the outboard seats.  In the photo, left, I show the Radian in the center, with two larger seats on each side, the Britax Frontier 85 (far) and Recaro ProSport (near).

The third row is cramped.  Legroom, as stated, is poor.  As I mentioned, the shoulder belts are mounted slightly farther forward that I’d like, making the fit on smaller kids in boosters marginal, unless you use a high back model with a shoulder belt guide.  The head restraints cannot be removed, only up or folded.  On the plus side, the buckle stalks are very easy for kids to access, so no issues with being able to buckle themselves in a booster.  There are no top tether anchors at all back there, so use of a forward facing seat with a 5-point harness is not ideal, especially given the relatively short distance to the 2nd row.  I tried the Sunshine Kids Radian there, since it meets stricter federal requirements, even without a top tether.  Unfortunately, it did not result in a good fit due to the forward-mounted buckle stalk.

A rear-facing child seat could be installed with the seatbelt and might fit if you move the 2nd row seat forward a couple notches.  I tried a Britax Marathon 70 there and it fit well (photo, left).  You would likely have to load and unload baby from the back hatch, though.  This isn’t as bad as it sounds, actually!  Definitely consider the third row as something you use for kids in boosters.  As mentioned above, pre-teens or smaller occupants might be OK back there for short trips, especially if you move the 2nd row seats forward somewhat.

Most of the interior space in the Highlander is up front.  For the first and second rows, it is quite generous all around.  With all rear seats folded, the cargo capacity is basically huge.  Even with just the third row folded, you have quite a bit of room to haul a lot of stuff and still fit three kids and two adults.  You also get flexibility as you can fold either side of the second and third rows as needed and all of this can be done from the back of the van.  Where it gets tight is if you have all seven seats in use.  The cargo area behind the third row seats is very small.  It’s fine for a small load of groceries, but not a lot more.  If seven are riding on a trip, you won’t be able to fit their luggage like you can in a minivan; you’re going to have to put it on the roof or on a hitch basket.

The Verdict:

Overall, the Highlander Hybrid is a great choice for some families who are looking to downsize a bit, lose the soccer mom/dad minivan stigma and get better fuel economy, too!  In that regard, perhaps I’m the ideal demographic.  I’ve been driving a minivan for 10 years, so it’s nice to drive something a little different, even if somewhat less practical.  And don’t tell anyone, but I can’t say that I mind having all-wheel-drive, 280 horsepower, being able to do 0-60 in just over 7 seconds or the 3500 pounds of towing goodness.  Sure, many of us may never actually need any of those things, but just having them is a nice compromise from that midlife-crisis red, convertible sports car.  Plus, the hybrid trim is pretty rare, unlike the millions of Honda, Chrysler and Toyota minivans that litter suburbia…  In fact, I haven’t seen another 2011 Highlander Hybrid on the road, yet.

You can learn more about the Highlander at the Toyota website and download brochures as well. For pricing information, we recommend Edmunds.com, Carwoo! and CarsDirect.com.