Toyota's Highlander Hybrid offers something new in the mid-sized 7-seat SUV segment. Jonathan Crouch takes a look.
A mid-sized 7-seat SUV is nothing new but one with a proper full-Hybrid engine that you don't have to plug-in very definitely is. That's what's on offer from Toyota's Highlander Hybrid. Does any car in this class make more sense than this one?
The Highlander is a newcomer here but North American, Japanese and Australian markets have already had three previous generation models, the first of which launched back in 2000. This MK4 design was introduced at the 2019 New York Auto Show and the growth in European sales of mid-sized 7-seat SUVs has convinced Toyota to offer it on this continent, including in our market. The Highlander sits in Toyota's range between the RAV4 and the Land Cruiser and its size and 7-seat format puts it up against similarly orientated SUV rivals like Skoda's Kodiaq, Peugeot's 3008, SEAT's Tarraco, Volkswagen's Tiguan Allspace, Hyundai's Santa Fe and Kia's Sorrento. There are various types of hybrid technology featuring this sector, but the Highlander's alone in offering a full-Hybrid engine and self charging tech.
Basically all the engineering here is borrowed from a Toyota Camry, including the TNGA-K Global Architecture platform and the 2.5-litre Atkinson cycle full-Hybrid petrol engine, which features electric motors mounted on both axles. The rear motor operates the variable 4WD system, though you shouldn't consider this a really capable off-roader - choose a Land Cruiser if you want that. Light tracks are well within the Highlander's remit though - indeed, there's a selectable 'Trail' function amongst the driving modes. In addition, there's an electric-only 'EV' mode, which won't take you very far - only just over a mile - but it does differentiate this Toyota's full-Hybrid powerplant from mild hybrid units that can never run independently on electric power. Full-Hybrid tech isn't about zero emissions range - buy Toyota's RAV4 PHEV if you want that. Instead, it's about the electrified elements constantly chipping in to help the petrol powerplant, which happens to such a large extent that for large chunks of time in urban driving, as in a Prius, you won't be consuming any fuel at all. The four-cylinder engine develops 241hp and works via a CVT auto gearbox. There's a capable 2-tonne towing capacity.
The Highlander might share its GA-K platform with a RAV4 but it's quite a lot bigger, 4950mm long, 1,730mm tall and 1,930mm wide. It rides on big 20-inch wheels and there are the usual roof rails and chunky wheel arches common to cars in this segment. Inside, many of the fixtures and fittings are, predictably, recognisable from a Camry but the leather-upholstered cabin still manages to feel reasonably premium. There are lots of storage compartments, as you'd want in a family Crossover, and USB ports are provided for both front and 2nd row seated occupants. Ah yes, the 2nd row. It can slide over 180mm to improve legroom either for 2nd or 3rd row occupants. The 3rd row is really only suitable for children, as is typical in this class, but a couple of uncomplaining adults could be accommodated over short-to-medium length journeys, provided they're not too tall. Out back, a kick sensor that operates the powered tailgate provides access to a 658-litre boot (when the 3rd row is not in use), extendable to as much as 1,909-litres when the 2nd row is folded. That's pretty good for a full-Hybrid SUV. There's also an underfloor storage area.
Pricing starts at just over £50,000 and two variants are available, the 'Excel' and, for just under £2,000 more, the 'Excel Premium'. The 'Excel' specification includes 20-inch alloy wheels, leather seat upholstery, three-zone air conditioning, a panoramic roof and a JBL Premium Sound set-up. Other equipment features include a multimedia system, satellite navigation, wireless phone charging, smartphone connection via Apple CarPlay and AndroidAuto and a digital rear-view mirror that provides a wide image unobscured by rear passengers or headrests. The 'Excel Premium' model adds a head-up display, a power tailgate with hands-free operation, ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, a 360-degree camera and a different 20-inch alloy wheel design. The Highlander is also equipped with the latest Toyota Safety Sense package of active safety and driver assistance systems. These include a Pre-Collision System with active steer assist, to provide further collision avoidance support. The PCS set-up can also detect pedestrians in the vehicle's path by both and day and night - and bicycle riders in daylight. Other features include full-range Adaptive Cruise Control with Road Sign Assist, Lane Departure Alert and Lane Tracing Assist, and Automatic High Beam.
Let's get to the WLTP figures. Toyota quotes 42.8mpg on the combined cycle and a CO2 emissions reading of 146g/km - returns that look very strong compared to rivals in this segment. Insurance is group 24E. Unlike earlier Toyota hybrid models, there's no extended warranty for the hybrid components; early Prius's were covered for up to eight years. However, after this car's standard five year warranty expires, you can renew it at extra cost for a further year or 10,000 miles - and do so every twelve months up to the 15th anniversary of the car's initial registration, provided a 'Hybrid Electric Service' is regularly carried out at a main dealer 'Toyota Hybrid Electric Specialist'. As standard, Highlander customers get five years of pan-European roadside breakdown assistance, a three year paint warranty and twelve years of anti-perforation cover. As for looking after your car, well routine maintenance is needed every 10,000 miles or 12 months, depending on which comes round soonest; that may be a little frustrating if you're a higher mileage driver. Hybrid models are subject to extra service checks, but Toyota doesn't charge any more to do it. There's a dedicated 'My Toyota' website that allows you to book a service online and Toyota has a 'Fixed Price Servicing' plan, so you'll know in advance exactly how much any work will cost before you check into a dealer. You could also take advantage of the optional pre-paid 'Service Plan' that that dealer will offer at point of purchase, this enabling Highlander owners to cover the cost of routine maintenance with monthly or one-off payments in advance.
We can see why you might be attracted to a Highlander. Prior to its arrival, if you didn't want smoky diesel fuel in the mid-sized 7-seat SUV segment, your only choices were either mild hybrid petrol engines (only marginally more efficient than their conventional counterparts). Or pricey plug-in hybrid models (that give you extra weight and all the hassle of plugging in). This Highlander's self charging full-Hybrid powertrain offers the perfect compromise between these two extremes - or so Toyota hopes anyway. For too long, Toyota's SUV range was limited to the RAV4 and the Land Cruiser. The Highlander sits roughly between these two cars and with the lower end of this Japanese maker's Crossover line-up also developed with the Yaris Cross and the CH-R, the brand now looks properly placed in the SUV market. With the Highlander being possibly the most sensible option the company offers.
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