I’m not quite sure exactly when the three-row SUV became the American family car, but we’re firmly in that era now. The country has always liked its vehicles to be big, and the extra height of an SUV makes it extra-bigger. Which is why it’s disappointing that there are so few hybrid three-rows to choose from, particularly if you don’t want a luxury badge on the front. There are really only two options in 2021. You could go for the Kia Sorento Hybrid, which we tested in January. But for a little more—starting at $38,510 for a front-wheel-drive version—you could get an even bigger one: the new Toyota Highlander hybrid.
The country seems obsessed with imposing, bluff-fronted SUVs and trucks these days, and the Highlander conforms to this trend, albeit with less implicit menace than others have achieved. Toyota knows how to style attractive SUVs, but it’s a challenge for any automaker to make something this big look elegant as opposed to slab-sided. And you do get a heck of a lot of vehicle when you get a Highlander. It’s 195 inches (4,950 mm) long, 76 inches (1,930 mm) wide, and 68 inches (1.730 mm) tall, and it has a 112-inch (2,850 mm) wheelbase, all of which puts it in the “midsize” segment (something that still baffles an immigrant like me who considers it ginormous).
The result is an interior that goes beyond spacious. From the driver’s seat, you have plenty of room between you and the passenger seat, and the door is far enough away that I started complaining there was nowhere convenient to rest my elbow. As is usually the case with press fleet vehicles, our test Highlander hybrid was fully loaded, in this case a $50,315 Platinum AWD model, so the interior is generously trimmed with leather. There are plenty of cubbies and shelves for storage, and I rather like the way the 12.3-inch infotainment system is framed by a bar that stretches out to the passenger-side A pillar. (As an infotainment system it’s fine; it’s the same one you’ll find in the Venza hybrid crossover, with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.)
Life’s also pretty good if you’re riding in one of the two captain’s chairs that make up the middle row. At 41 inches (1,041 mm), you have even more legroom than the front-seat passenger, and in Platinum trim, the middle row is also heated.
As with many three-row SUVs, the third row should be thought of as cargo space first and foremost. The problem is that the distance between the floor and the seat is less than in the other rows, so even short people like me have to sit with their knees in their face. Plus, if you do have the third row in use, your cargo capacity is just 16 cubic feet (453 L); with this row folded down, the capacity is a much more useful 48 cubic feet (1,371 L). One consequence of the captain’s chairs is that, although they also fold down, you won’t get a completely flat load floor like you would if they were a single bench seat.
Instead of the 3.5 L V6 that powers other Highlanders, there’s one of Toyota’s 2.5 L, four-cylinder Atkinson cycle engines. This works in conjunction with a pair of electric motors, one an integrated starter/generator and the other a drive motor. The AWD hybrid adds a third electric motor for the rear wheels. Total power output is 243 hp (181 kW), with the gasoline engine contributing up to 186 hp (139 kW), and a combined torque output of 175 lb-ft (237 Nm) regardless of whether the Highlander hybrid is FWD or AWD. There’s only a single transmission option, a continuously variable transmission, and like so many of those, it does the SUV few favors in terms of refinement.
At city speeds, everything is fine, and the instant torque of the electric motor does wonders in getting the all-wheel-drive SUV’s 4,595 lbs (2,084 kg) of mass underway. But the CVT means that the engine revs increase faster than you gain speed, which produces a raspy, buzzy noise that sounds particularly labored under load (if you’re climbing a hill, for example).
You notice that weight when it’s time to slow down, too. With an initial light brake application, there appeared to be a little dead spot on the first few millimeters of travel on the brake pedal, which was a little unnerving until I got used to it. Not that I was in any danger, but Toyota’s Safety Sense 2.0 package of advanced driver assists is standard on all Highlanders.
My biggest complaint with the Highlander hybrid is its fuel efficiency. Its official EPA rating is 35 mpg combined (6.7 l/100 km), with the same in the city, and 34 mpg (6.9 l/100 km) on the highway. But I struggled to reach 31 mpg (7.6 l/100 km). That’s still pretty good when you consider a V6 Platinum AWD Highlander is only rated at a combined 20 mpg (11.8 l/100 km), but it’s not nearly as good as the 37 mpg (6.4 l/100 km) Kia Sorento Hybrid. That car is slightly shorter than the Toyota, but it’s also meaningfully cheaper, and it’s the one we’d recommend.