The 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is a terrific family vehicle, but not the sort that inspires driving enthusiasts. One can't expect sports-car performance from a three-row crossover that's eco-friendly. It's just not realistic. However, the Highlander addresses the reality of living with kids and pets as well as road trips and big-box stores more than adequately than a sports car.
For 2011, the Highlander Hybrid has an all-new face, with a sleeker profile and fewer bulges, as well as lighting that differentiates it from the gas-powered Highlander.
The Highlander Hybrid also got some upgrades under the hood, with a new, larger engine. I honestly didn't notice a major difference in power compared to the past generation; the Highlander Hybrid charged up hills without any hesitation. The ride is super-smooth, but the Highlander Hybrid has a roly-poly feeling through twisty roads, which was a bit unnerving and encouraged slower driving on my part.
While the Highlander Hybrid base model starts at $37,490, the Limited model starts at $43,145. My test car, a Limited model, cost $44,720. At least you won't be paying much at the pump since this hybrid uses regular gas and gets an EPA-estimated 28/28 mpg city/highway.
The 2011 Highlander Hybrid is quite an improvement over past Highlanders in the looks department. The new model is much sleeker, with a smaller, more restrained grille. The body-colored bumper flows more easily into the rest of the vehicle, and the headlights don't seem to bulge as far out at the corners. The profile is essentially unchanged. Chrome strips line the bottom of the windows and doors, in addition to dressing up the roof rack and door handles. There are no harsh edges or corners anywhere on this hybrid. Even the little roof-mounted spoiler seems apologetic and retiring. The 19-inch alloy wheels make an attempt at ruggedness, but it's not very convincing.
The Highlander Hybrid doesn't sit much higher off the road than a sedan, so it's not difficult for kids to climb into it. Wide step-in areas help keep kids sure-footed when getting in. It was the perfect height for me to slide right into the driver's seat without bumping my head or having to hop up into it. The doors open and close with a solid thump, but aren't too heavy. They open wide enough to make loading babies and toddlers less of a hassle. The standard power liftgate opened at the push of a button and sat high enough that I didn't bump my head walking under it.
The 2011 Highlander Hybrid comes with a 231-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine that supports not one but two electric motors. The first is the main electric motor that can power the car at low speeds and when combined with the V-6 engine makes 280 hp. A second electric motor powers the rear wheels when in all-wheel drive. The gas-powered front-wheel-drive Highlander has a four-cylinder engine and gets 20/25 mpg.
SENSE AND STYLE
Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Excellent
Fun-Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove-On): Some
Life inside the Highlander Hybrid is about as comfy as it gets. Though the materials don't seem as fine as in past models, the leather seats are still soft and heated in the front row. The climate control system now has three zones with a set of controls in the back so older kids can manage their climate or just run the fan for entertainment's sake. Also new for this year, a 50/50-split folding third row is now standard and no longer a pricey option.
The Highlander Hybrid's two-toned dash and sunroof both contribute to a feeling of openness. Wood trim on the center stack and console adds richness and warmth to the interior and offsets the techie-ness of the audio and navigation systems' multiple screens, buttons and knobs. The systems take some getting used to, but it's not impossible. The stereo system includes AM/FM/XM radio, CD and an MP3 jack, as well as a USB/iPod input and Bluetooth streaming music. Storage up front is sufficient but not impressive. While there are four cupholders in the center console area, the console's bin itself is rather small. The bottleholders in the doors only fit a small bottle, and the door bins are narrow. It's not unworkable; it only meant that I had to manage my clutter.
The second row is comfortable for all shapes and sizes since it slides forward and back, leaving plenty of room for long legs or bulky child-safety seats. The center seat, which is narrow and not the most comfortable location on earth, folds forward and pops out of place to be stored in a nifty compartment in the back of the front row's center console. You can leave the center space empty as a passage to the third row or pop in a center console, complete with cupholders, storage bins and a non-slip surface that kids can step on to reach the "way back." The console is easy to install, and I love the built-in storage.
The third row is really only fit for kids or short trips. With the second row as far forward as possible, I still felt squished sitting back there. The kids don't seem to mind, though, even if their knees are touching the seats in front of them.
Cargo space behind the third row is also limited. During my test drive I usually left the third row folded so I could make a full grocery run or stow something bigger than a couple of backpacks. There's a carpet that covers the entire cargo space, and when the third row is in use, the carpet is supposed to fold up neatly and sit on the cargo floor. I never managed to figure out how to origami the thing into place, so it sat there, all bulky and sloppy and I tried to ignore it.
IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT
Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Fair
Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Fair
This seven-seat SUV comes with only two sets of lower Latch anchors. The anchors are buried in the seat bight, which is where the back and bottom cushions meet. The seat cushions are soft, though, so it's easy to push them out of the way to gain access to the anchors.
Booster seats, forward- and rear-facing convertibles and rear-facing infant-safety seats all fit well in the Highlander Hybrid's second row that slides back and forth to create more room for bulky car seats or long legs. The second row's seat belt buckles are easy to use since they're on stable bases that can be grasped by kids.
The hybrid has the following standard safety features: all-wheel drive, four-wheel-disc antilock brakes with brake assist, an electronic stability system, traction control, a backup camera and seven airbags, including a side-impact airbags for the front row, side curtains for all three rows and a driver's knee airbag.
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