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2016 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Platinum Review by Carey Russ +VIDEO


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2016 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Platinum

Toyota's Highlander Hybrid is all about efficient, un-ostentatious luxury. And function ...plenty of function.

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD WITH CAREY RUSS

            • SEE ALSO: Toyota Research and Buyers Guide


PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2016 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Platinum

As one of the first car-based crossovers in the days of truck SUVs, Toyota's Highlander was almost revolutionary when it made its debut fifteen years ago. Three generations later, it's solidly mainstream and still a class benchmark.

When the hybrid variant was introduced in 2005, the Highlander added "first gasoline-electric hybrid crossover SUV" to its list of accomplishments. A decade-plus later, it's no longer the only hybrid crossover, but is the only three-row midsize hybrid crossover. And quite likely the best-seller among hybrid crossovers. Toyota's "Hybrid Synergy Drive" has gone from radically-new to proven technology over the years, and so the Highlander Hybrid continues to give owners a fine combination of useful interior space and versatility and surprising fuel economy. With no sacrifice of ability or power as with a system total of 280 horsepower, and gobs of torque from both its electric motors and gasoline engine, the 2016 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is remarkably quick when needed. I saw an honest 25 mpg for my recent week with a premium Platinum example, and a 0-60 time just over 7.5 seconds made short highway onramps non-terrifying. Not bad at all for a vehicle weighing in at over 4800 pounds.

Regular Highlander models use either a 185-horsepower 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine in front-wheel drive form or a 270-hp 3.5-liter V6 with front- or all-wheel drive. V6 Highlanders get the towing package for 2016, with more engine and transmission cooling and a heavy-duty alternator standard.

The Hybrid's powertrain combines a modified version of the V6 with three electric motor-generators. (An electric motor works as a generator when it's driven, here during deceleration, when it also provides regenerative braking, and when it's driven by the gasoline engine to generate electricity to charge the battery pack.) One does triple duty as the engine starter and transmission controller. A second drives the front wheels through the CVT transmission in EV mode or to provide assistance to the engine. The third drives the rear wheels when the control software determines that it's needed. Those two also provide regenerative braking and help charge the NiMH hybrid battery pack.

As the range-topper, the Highlander Hybrid is equivalent to the gas-only Limited in standard equipment level. Meaning projector-beam headlights and LED running lights, power folding and memory mirrors with puddle lamps, UV-restriction glass, windshield wiper de-icers, a power tailgate, triple-zone automatic climate control, perforated leather for the front rows, 2+2+3 seating, navigation, and nearly every information and entertainment system currently in use. If that's not enough, there is the Platinum grade, which adds a panoramic moonroof, rain-sensing wipers, a heated steering wheels and second-row seat cushions, and the Driver Technology Package of Pre-Collision System (PCS) with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control (DRCC), Land-Departure Alert (LDA), and Automatic High Beam (AHB) headlights plus Safety Connect.

And that of course was my test car for the past week. So outfitted, it not only comes close to a luxury crossover in specification and comfort, it's also close in price. At $51,385 on the bottom of the sticker, this Highlander wasn't too far behind its cousin Lexus RX 450h in price, at least without options. This Highlander Hybrid Platinum had no options, and didn't need anything more. If larger than the original, the newest Highlander is still of a size that is parked, rather than docked, and yet has plenty of useful space inside, especially in the second row and even in the third. Small conveniences like the tray at the bottom of the dashboard enhance usefulness. It's smooth, comfortable, quiet, powerful, and economical. And un-ostentatious.




APPEARANCE: It's not quite the box it came in, as the corners and edges are rounded and its body panels are all gently sculpted, but the current Highlander won't be mistaken for anything but a mid-sized crossover. Its bold upside-down trapezoid grille gives it presence, especially with the chromed top crossbar that blends into the headlight trim. Still, it's not particularly flashy, with chrome limited to that and side window trim. Prominent wheel arches and a strong, rising shoulder line give an athletic stance, and the bulging taillights are pure contemporary Toyota. Integrated roof rails and textured black cladding around the lower perimeter are classic crossover cues. Hybrids are differentiated from lesser Highlanders by blue trim on the "T" badges and "Hybrid" badges on the front doors and tailgate.

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2016 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Platinum

COMFORT: The major advantage of being in a big box is that it's a big box. Even the third row is more than merely tolerable, at least for smallish people, and front and second-row passengers get as much space, comfort, and convenience as anyone in a luxury-brand equivalent. Highlander styling is more conservative than that of the Lexus RX, but still handsome. And eminently functional. Fit and finish are top-notch, as are materials, for a Toyota-branded vehicle. Yes, the "aluminum" trim around the vents and instruments is plastic, as is the "woodgrain" on the dash. So? Seat comfort is very good, with the front seats power-adjustable. The eight-way adjustable driver's seat has memory and adjustable power thigh and lumbar support. Front seats are both heated and cooled.

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2016 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Platinum

The second-row "captain's chairs" are similar in design and comfort to the front seats, but manually-adjustable -- including around six inches of fore-and-aft travel. They have two-level cushion heat and around 30 degrees of back angle adjustment. The hybrid batteries live underneath the second-row area, so there is a raised area between the seats, and a fold-out tray with cupholders. Access to the third row is good for a mid-size SUV. Headroom is essentially unlimited; knee room is another story. With the second row seat in the middle to front of its track, the third-row passenger behind will fit if he or she is under about 5' 4". Even with the third row in place there is good cargo space behind, and a bit of hidden storage under the load floor. With it down, much more. Second-row captain's chairs don't lend themselves to cargo as well as a bench. Placement of the spare tire outside and underneath the rear is the Highlander's only truck-like characteristic.

Instrumentation is a bit different that in a regular Highlander, with a hybrid system indicator replacing the tachometer. Audio choices are all current, and there is a handy passthrough on the in-dash shelf to the USB port and jack below. A two foot-long roll-top console box is the storage centerpiece, but there's more in the doors and locking glovebox.

SAFETY: Like all Toyotas, the 2016 Highlander Hybrid has the STAR Safety System™ of computer-controlled braking and vehicle dynamics and stability control, a full complement of airbags, a unibody structure designed and built to protect passengers, and much more as standard equipment. Further electronic systems are standard in the Limited Platinum.

RIDE AND HANDLING: It's tall and heavy and designed and built for comfort. That said, proper spring and shock damper rate matching and quality shocks mean that the Highlander Hybrid doesn't feel top-heavy and deals with poor pavement easily. No it won't go down the road as quickly as a sports car -- but the sports car won't carry six or seven people in comfort. Interior noise is minimal. Steering is not over-assisted, and there is some feedback as to road conditions. The all-wheel drive system is meant for inclement weather, not off-road use. It got tested in heavy rain, and worked well.

PERFORMANCE: As with all Toyota hybrids, the Highlander Hybrid's engine can start or stop any time at the command of the control software. You'll notice it, but barely. Non-linear throttle response was worked out of the system long ago, so the Hybrid responds to throttle input just like a regular car, and far better than most CVT-equipped vehicles. Only under absolutely wide-open throttle is it noisy. As mentioned, acceleration -- 0-60 in 7.6 seconds -- and fuel economy -- 25 mpg -- are both impressive for a near-5,000 pound vehicle. The engine is an Atkinson-cycle version of Toyota's 3.5-liter V6. It makes 321 horsepower at 5800 rpm, with torque peaking at 215 lb-ft at 4800 rpm. That's a high torque peak -- but the front motor-generator unit makes 167 horsepower… and 247 lb-ft as soon as it starts to rotate. Therein lies the secret of the Hybrid's acceleration. The rear motor-generator adds up to 68 horsepower and 103 lb-ft. The control system blends power sources as needed, to a maximum horsepower rating of 280. Maximum system torque is not given, but is more than adequate. Braking is very good, especially with unobtrusive assistance from regenerative braking.

CONCLUSIONS: Toyota's Highlander Hybrid is all about efficient, unostentatious luxury. And function, .plenty of function.

SPECIFICATIONS

2016 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Platinum

Base Price $ 50,485

Price As Tested $ 51,385

Engine Type 24-valve Atkinson-cycle DOHC aluminum alloy V6 with VVT-i valve lift and cam phasing control

Engine Size 3.5 liters / 213 cu. in.

Horsepower 231 @ 5800 rpm

Torque (lb-ft) 215 @ 4800 rpm

Electric Motors - Motor Generator 1 (MG1)
        650 VAC permanent magnet type, used for engine starter, generator, and front transmission control

        MG2
        650 VAC permanent magnet, drives front wheels and provides regenerative braking 167 hp, 247 lb-ft

        MG3
        650 VAC permanent magnet, drives rear wheels and provides regenerative braking 68 hp, 103 lb-ft

Hybrid Battery Pack 288 VDC NiMH

Maximum net horsepower 280

Transmission electronically-controlled CVT

Wheelbase / Length 109.8 in. / 191.1 in.

Curb Weight 4861 lbs.

Pounds Per Horsepower 17.4

Fuel Capacity 17.2 gal.

Fuel Requirement 87-octane unleaded regular gasoline

Tires P245/55R19 103T Bridgestone Dueler H/L A22 m+s

Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, electronically-controlled brakes with ABS, EBD, BA, VDIM, and regenerative braking

Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent double wishbone

Ground Clearance 8.0 inches

Drivetrain Hybrid AWD system with transverse front engine and motor-generator hybrid for front-wheel drive, electric motor-generator for rear wheel drive

PERFORMANCE

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 27 / 28 / 25

0 to 60 mph 7.6 sec

OPTIONS AND CHARGES

Delivery and Processing Charge $ 900