Toyota Highlander Hybrid review
If you want a practical seven-seater but don’t want a diesel, the hybrid-only Highlander is a solid choice. It’s big, comfy and smooth, but some hybrid SUVs are better to drive.
What's not so good
Find out more about the Toyota Highlander Hybrid
The Toyota Highlander is a large, seven-seat SUV that sits above the RAV4 in size, and is only offered as a hybrid. You’d be forgiven for having never heard of a Toyota Highlander, as this is the first time the model has been sold here. It’s hugely popular in the US, however, where millions of the things have been sold over the past two decades.
Like Halloween, fast food and large fridge freezers, many things made popular in America have also become popular in Europe. But cars aimed at the States quite often flop over here. Thankfully, though, the Highlander is a worthy new addition to Toyota’s UK range.
The Highlander is aimed at big, seven-seat SUV alternatives such as the Kia Sorento and Hyundai Santa Fe. But it’s also priced to compete with basic versions of the Audi Q7 and Land Rover Discovery. The latter offer posher badges, but they can’t match the Highlander’s long list of standard equipment.
If you expected the Toyota Highlander to have the same angular, creased look as the smaller Rav4, you’ll either be disappointed or relieved (depending on your view). It’s much more conventional-looking. In fact, it looks a little bit bland next to the more distinctive Kia Sorento.
The same applies to the cabin, which is clearly more about function than beauty. That’s no bad thing, however, especially in a family SUV: everything feels built to last, although some plastics don’t feel or look as nice as they should for the price. At least there’s some plush soft-touch trim dotted about the place to improve things.
Ease-of-use is a big thing here: Toyota has resisted the urge to cover the dash in fiddly touch-sensitive buttons or bury every function in the touchscreen. That means it’s not the most attractive cabin, granted, but many will see it as a worthy sacrifice. It’s a pity the infotainment already looks and feels a bit old-school, though.
Still, the seats are comfortable, visibility is great and you’ll have no complaints from passengers in terms of space – the Highlander is one of the roomiest SUVs on the market. Front passengers have loads of room and there’s an enormous cubby between the seats.
Exciting and fun to drive the Highlander isn't, but if you want comfy and relaxing family transport it's a good buy
But it’s in the back where the Toyota Highlander really excels; the middle row offers generous legroom, especially with the sliding and reclining seats pushed all the way back, while headroom is still good even with the standard panoramic sunroof. There’s a flat floor so three people isn’t a squeeze, either. The third row is best for kids but fine for adults on short journeys, and those chairs are certainly more useable than they are in something like a Skoda Kodiaq.
The Toyota Highlander also has reclining seatbacks for the third row: not all SUVs have this, and it allows you to make your sixth and seventh passenger more comfortable, or maximise boot space. The boot itself is just big enough for a weekly shop with all seats in place, and bigger than an Audi Q7 with the third row folded. The only downside is the lack of any handy electric folding mechanism for the seats.
At least deciding which engine to have is easy, as there is only one. It’s a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine combined with two electric motors – one for the front wheels and one for the rear – that make the Toyota Highlander four-wheel drive.
With 246hp pulling a two-tonne car, performance is okay, but not brilliant. It’s quick off the mark and builds speed reasonably well, but because it uses a CVT automatic gearbox the engine sounds like it’s screaming for relief when you put your foot down. At least with no gears to change it’s super smooth around town, and the hybrid system juggles between electric and petrol power well.
The soft suspension of the Toyota Highlander makes for a comfortable and refined ride – great for potholed British roads. It does mean it’s not as sharp in the bends as some rivals and the car feels a bit disconnected from the road, but who is buying a large SUV for handling anyway?
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The Highlander is one of the roomiest SUVs on the market. Front passengers have loads of room and there’s an enormous cubby between the seats.
Still, the seats are comfortable, visibility is great and you’ll have no complaints from passengers in terms of space – the Highlander is one of the roomiest SUVs on the market. Front passengers have loads of room and there’s an enormous cubby between the seats to store stuff.
But it’s in the back where the Toyota Highlander really excels; the middle row offers generous legroom, especially with the sliding and reclining seats pushed all the way back, while headroom is still good even with the standard panoramic sunroof. There’s a flat floor and the car’s body is wide so three adults isn’t a squeeze, either.
As with many of these SUVs the third row is best for kids but fine for adults on short journeys, and those chairs are certainly more useable than they are in something like a Skoda Kodiaq.
The Toyota Highlander also has reclining seatbacks for the third row: not all SUVs have this, and it allows you to make your sixth and seventh passenger more comfortable, or maximise boot space. The reclining action is pretty generous on both rows so your passengers can really lean back and relax.
There’s a decent amount of storage places in the front of the Toyota Highlander. The door bins aren’t huge, but the glovebox is an okay size, and there are a couple of useful cutout areas in the dash that have fabric linings to stop items rattling around on the move.
More useful still is the enormous space under the centre armrest. You slide back the middle part of the armrest to reveal a wireless smartphone charger, and if you lift this there’s enough space for an entire family picnic.
Sadly, it’s not so great in the back. The door pockets are fine, but there’s not really anywhere else to store stuff other than in the pockets in the back of the front seats. In the third row there is no storage bar a couple of large cupholders on each side.
The Toyota Highlander is one of the better seven-seat SUVs in terms of keeping some useable boot space with all seven seats in place.
Okay, it’s not exactly a huge space, but there’s enough for a few large shopping bags and a bit of space under the boot floor. You can also store the parcel shelf under the boot floor in a purpose-built slot. That’s despite a space-saver spare wheel mounted under the car at the back – you won’t find that on every car these days.
Fold the third row of seats and the boot is a useful 658-litres. Put all rear seats down and that increases to a van-like 1909 litres, and the rear seats fold totally flat. The only black mark is the lack of any handy electric folding mechanism for the seats, which makes doing so more of a faff.
If getting entertained behind the wheel is your priority then the Highlander won’t fit the bill. It’s plenty good enough, however, and easy to drive in town for such a big thing.
You won’t be spending hours thinking about which engine to have in your Toyota Highlander: the choice is limited to just one.
It’s a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine mated to two electric motors – one for the front wheels and one for the rear – that make the Toyota Highlander four-wheel drive without any engine power being sent to the back. It’s not a plug-in hybrid; the system juggles between powering the wheels via petrol or electricity and charging the small battery to always keep a bit of electric juice in reserve.
With 246hp pulling a two-tonne car performance is fine, but not sparkling. It’s quick off the mark and builds speed reasonably well, but pretty much every other large, road-biased SUV is faster outright. Also, because it uses a CVT automatic gearbox the engine sounds like it’s screaming for sweet relief if you keep your foot planted on the throttle. If you’re in a hurry you’ll quickly tire of this racket. In fact, we’d liken the sound to an over-excited cow.
It’s better, then, to relax, unwind and enjoy the positives of the Highlander’s power unit. That gearbox might not be great for spirited driving but it’s fantastic for low-speed cruising and town work. There are no gearchanges to interrupt things so it’s super smooth, and if you’re gentle on the throttle you can keep the car in electric-only mode for short distances. This makes the car emit a sci-fi whir to warn pedestrians that you’re coming, too.
Drive gently and you’ll see 35-40mpg out of the Toyota Highlander. That’s pretty good for a large, heavy petrol SUV, although it’s some way off what a plug-in hybrid would achieve in short distances. That figure could also be matched by a diesel engine, which although not fashionable any more would likely offer better real-world performance, too.
It’s clear from the get go that the Toyota Highlander is tuned for comfort rather than carving around country lane corners like your hair’s on fire.
If it were a sports car you’d be very disappointed, but it clearly isn’t. In fact, its laid back feel suits the sort of journeys you’d likely be doing in a large SUV with seven seats. It doesn’t roll around like an oil tanker in stormy seas, but an Audi Q7 or Kia Sorento has nicer steering and keeps you more involved in the driving experience.
Still, general refinement and comfort are very good. The relatively soft suspension irons out all but the worst potholes, visibility is great for town work and it’ll lope along nicely at motorway speeds.
The Toyota Highlander’s cabin isn’t as luxurious as premium brand models, but it’s functional and has loads of standard kit
Toyota Highlander Hybrid colours
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*Please contact the dealer for a personalised quote, including terms and conditions. Quote is subject to dealer requirements, including status and availability. Illustrations are based on personal contract hire, 9 month upfront fee, 48 month term and 8000 miles annually, VAT included.