Toyota’s Highlander, a midsize sport-utility vehicle, long has been one of the Japanese automaker’s most popular models. More than 215,000 Highlanders, which are assembled in Princeton, Ind., wound up with new homes last year. The new year started with a bang with 15,484 units sold — nearly 3,000 more than in January 2017, for a vehicle that’s almost unchanged from the previous model year. It’s no wonder the Highlander sells well. Roomy, reliable, versatile and durable, Consumer Reports magazine recently judged the Highlander the best choice in its category.
Our 2017 Shoreline Blue Pearl Highlander LE test car had an added feature that makes this model even more desirable for many drivers: a gasoline-electric hybrid system that boosts fuel economy to 30 mpg city, 28 highway. A conventionally powered Highlander with all-wheel drive averages 21/27.
Unlike the Highlander hybrid we drove last year, this one is better suited for young, active families on tight budgets. Previous Highlander hybrids were loaded to the rafters with standard features, and they were priced accordingly. The Limited Platinum model we test-drove last year was priced at nearly $50,000, compared with $37,479 for the 2017 Highlander LE.
It’s true that the Highlander hybrid doesn’t make much sense for people who do mostly highway driving. The hybrid’s highway fuel economy is just 1 mpg higher than that of V-6-powered LE models with all-wheel drive, yet it’s priced more than $2,000 higher.
In mainly urban use, the hybrid system delivers substantial savings; fuel economy is 9 mpg better. But the Highlander really isn’t a city car, owing to its dimensions. People who need the Highlander’s considerable people-moving capabilities — up to 8 passengers — or its cargo room might be served better by a minivan, such as the Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid.
Compared with other, more expensive test cars we’ve driven lately, the Highlander’s standard equipment was on the spartan side. It did not have power front seats, leather upholstery, heated seats, satellite radio, blind-spot warning system or a power liftgate. It did have a handful of desirable features: Toyota’s Safety Sense system, which includes lane-departure alert, pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, automatic high beams, dynamic radar cruise control, heated exterior mirrors and rear-view camera.
Bolstering the Safety Sense system is the Highlander’s crash-protection record. It received highest possible overall vehicle score of 5 stars in government crash tests, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rated the Highlander a Top Safety Pick.
While the Highlander’s ride and throttle response were top-notch, we felt somewhat isolated from the road. Other SUVs, notably the Honda Pilot and the Mazda CX-9, provide a more engaging driving experience.
There are many choices in the midsize SUV category, making Toyota’s top ranking in the Consumer Reports survey all the more impressive. These include the Ford Explorer, Chevrolet Traverse, Nissan Pathfinder, Dodge Durango, Hyundai Santa Fe, and the CX-9 and Pilot. Premium brands such as Lexus, Infiniti, Acura, Cadillac and Lincoln also build highly rated midsize SUVs.
Steven Macoy ([email protected]) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.
2017 Toyota Highlander LE Hybrid
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6 hybrid, 306 net horsepower, 263 lb.-ft. torque
Transmission: continuously variable
Ground clearance: 8 in.
Weight: 4,825 lb.
Suspension: four-wheel independent
Wheels: 18-in. alloy
Tires: 245/60R18 all-season
Seating capacity: 8
Luggage capacity: 13.8 cu. ft.
Maximum cargo capacity: 83.7 cu. ft.
Maximum towing capacity: 3,500 lb.
Fuel capacity: 17.2 gal.
Fuel economy: 30 mpg city, 28 mpg highway
Fuel type: regular unleaded gasoline