Man it has been a looong time since I was behind the wheel of a Toyota for an auto review. I haven’t forgotten about Texas-based Toyota USA but maybe they forgot about me. Either way I was not about to turn down a week-long ride in the company’s newest Highlander, one of the top-selling CUVs in the country. And with gas prices creeping higher this summer, why not play with the Hybrid Platinum version?
The 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid comes in four trims levels—LE, XLE, Limited, and Platinum. All are upgraded with a new 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder engine that pushed 186 horses. The battery portion sports either two (FWD) or three (AWD) electric motor generators with power routed through a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). But enough with acronyms; how does it look and feel?
The outside is tweaked a bit this year and the first thing I noticed was the front grille. Toyota added a shiny, horizontal bar near the top of the grille that gives off a Cheshire cat-like grin complete with a big, blue (hybrid) Toyota badge as its front tooth. The roof slope line is sleek and the whole shape of the vehicle looks downright aerodynamic for a crossover. But my first step inside the Highlander is what took me by surprise. Toyota finally upgraded its infotainment system!
A 12.3″ touch display caught my eye and almost brought a tear to my eye. Standard in its top trims now, Toyota seemed to take the hint from other manufacturers and utilize more of the dashboard real estate with a useful and interactive command and connectivity center. It is easy to operate, quick to program your favorite radio stations, and connect to a phone. The last time I played around in a Toyota I don’t think they had Apple CarPlay. Not only is that included but Android Auto is in here along with Amazon Alexa compatibility and a wireless phone charger. Welcome to the 21st century! For even more technology-rich features, in-cabin WiFi and remote access can be added through the Connected Services app.
The fit up front is comfortable especially with the leather-trimmed, 10-way power-adjustable driver’s seat. The second row captain’s chairs were easy to fold down and crawl back to the three-seat third row. Adults or long-legged passengers will have a tight squeeze when sitting in that third row, though. The Highlander can also be configured with a second row 60/40 split bench that allows for 8-passenger seating though that may be a little close for comfort even in this large CUV. The interior capacity is decent with 16 cubic feet of space behind the third row but expands to a large 84.3 cubes when the second and third row seats are laid flat.
The basic LE can start just under $39,000 and escalate to over $50,000 on the Platinum with all the bells, whistles, speakers, and cameras. Toyota estimates 36 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway. Looking at comparative vehicles such as the Ford Explorer, Subaru Ascent, Kia Telluride, and the Honda Pilot, the Highlander Hybrid is a bit pricier but many buyers will probably lean on Toyota’s solid brand name, reliability and safety features.
Hear my thoughts from my recent radio show heard across the country on iHeartRadio: