2017 Toyota Highlander Hybrid stretches extremes

When I first drove a Toyota Prius nearly two decades ago and envisioned a future full of hybrids, the Highlander crossover is not exactly what I had in mind. I mean, here is a full-size, three-row crossover loaded to the rafters with every luxury known to Toyota man. Change the grille, slap a Lexus badge on its rump, and you could be convinced. But, a hybrid? Sipping fuel only makes it better.

Especially in Limited Platinum trim, you’ll sacrifice no comforts for efficient travel. Three rows of seats accommodate up to seven. Perforated leather seats smell like a British tannery and nearly every surface is covered with premium soft-touch materials. Front thrones are heated and cooled, middle row captain’s chairs are heated, and the soft leather-wrapped steering wheel warms with its own button. Winter is almost bearable. The padded under-dash tray is a perfect place for the key fob or gate cards while a front center console with roll-back doors can hold tablets and other gear. A flip-up tray between the middle row seats holds drinks and food.

Joys don’t stop there. JBL audio, Bluetooth, and large touchscreen channel sweet tunes while navigation sets a course to adventure. A backup camera, rain-sensing wipers, and birds-eye 360-degree camera enhance safety – as does Toyota’s Safety Sense P suite of crash-avoidance systems that includes a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert with steering assist, adaptive radar cruise control, blind spot monitor, and rear cross path detection.

It’s also pretty stylish with 19” chrome wheels and LED driving lamps. Adding class are smoked headlights, foglights, and a power liftgate. A twin-pane panoramic sunroof creates an airy cabin, though you’ll want to close the shade on really sunny days. Overall, stylists were experts in creating a large vehicle that’s sporty, elegant, and ruggedly handsome. It looks nothing like a Prius!

But, alas, it is still a hybrid that combines a 3.5-liter V6 engine, batteries, and electric drive motor for a total system output of 306 horsepower – plenty for quick acceleration. Or, the big crossover can tow 3,500 lbs – enough for a small boat, camper, or a couple of jet skis. Instead of a drive shaft, an electric motor turns the rear wheels in all-wheel-drive mode for efficiency. Front-drive models achieve 30/28-MPG city/highway, but our all-wheel-drive model achieves a still-respectable 29/27-MPG.

The Highlander was never at the top of my list for a three-row crossover. They always seemed noisy, hollow, and not particularly luxurious. This one is different. It summons quiet hybrid power when creeping through traffic and has reserves of power when storming busy freeways. Its interior feels completely up to Lexus standards and couldn’t be easier to use. Seven real humans can travel inside. Especially as a hybrid, Toyota hit its mark.

A Prius, it is not, but this is the hybrid for families and those with a large party posse. Arrive in style or just enjoy the comforts of getting there. Prices for the Princeton, Indiana-built Highlander start at $30,630, but came to $49,254 as-tested, making it competition for the Chrysler Pacifica plug-in, Honda Pilot, and upcoming Chevy Traverse with turbocharged four-cylinder engine.

E-mail Casey at [email protected] with questions, and be sure to follow him on YouTube and Twitter: @AutoCasey.

2017 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
Seven-passenger, AWD Crossover
Powertrain: 306hp 3.5-liter V6, batteries, electric motor
Suspension f/r: Ind/Ind
Wheels f/r: 19”/19” alloy
Brakes f/r: Regen disc/disc
Must-have features: Comfort, MPGs
Tow capacity: 3,500 lbs.
Fuel economy: 29/27 mpg city/hwy
Assembly: Princeton, IN
Base/as-tested price: $30,630/49,254