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2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Road Test and Review: Introduction
As I type this sentence, a redesigned 2014 Toyota Highlander is scheduled to debut at the 2013 New York Auto Show. I guess I should have seen that coming, considering that the vehicle you see here is now six years old. The thing is, the current Toyota Highlander, in most respects, doesn’t look its age, and it doesn’t feel its age. This is an incredibly practical family-sized crossover suv, one that’s even entertaining to drive, and in Highlander Hybrid format proves itself thrifty with a gallon of gas without trying hard.
Nevertheless, the show must go on, and an all-new 2014 Highlander is getting ready to roll into showrooms, certainly boasting improvements in numerous areas. In the months between now and then, Toyota dealers will be eager to unload stocks of the 2013 Highlander models, including the Highlander Hybrid model I test-drove for this review.
Speaking of which, the Highlander Hybrid is a bit of a rarity. Quick. Name as many 3-row hybrid SUVs as you can, starting now.
(classic game show music plays for 30 seconds)
Time is up. What did you come up with? If you said Cadillac Escalade Hybrid, Chevy Tahoe Hybrid, and GMC Yukon Hybrid, you got all three. Winner, winner, chicken dinner! Given this competitive set, it’s not at all surprising that the Toyota Highlander Hybrid is relatively popular.
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2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Road Test and Review: Models and Prices
Toyota sells the 2013 Highlander Hybrid in standard and Limited trim levels, each equipped with all-wheel drive. The standard model starts at $41,015 (including the $845 destination charge) and the Limited’s opening price is $47,215. These values represent premiums of $4,160 and $6,970, respectively, over the vehicles upon which they are based. Given EPA fuel economy estimates and an average price of $3.65 for regular unleaded gas, will take 4.5 years and 7.5 years, respectively, to recoup those premiums for a driver covering 15,000 miles per year.
My test model was the Highlander Hybrid Limited painted Sizzling Crimson Mica with Black perforated leather seats. It had the only option offered for this vehicle, a single-screen rear-seat DVD entertainment system ($1,760), dual wireless headphones ($82), a cargo net ($49), and a first-aid kit ($29), for a total of $49,135.
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2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Road Test and Review: Design
- No changes for 2013
To distinguish the Highlander Hybrid from other Highlander variants, Toyota installs a unique grille, a revised front bumper with vertically stacked fog lights, blue lens covers for the headlights and taillights, and chrome trim along the SUV’s rocker panels. Otherwise, nothing more than subtle Hybrid Synergy Drive badges and blue-tinted Toyota emblems are present to differentiate the Highlander Hybrid from its less expensive and less fuel-efficient siblings.
That’s not a bad thing. The Highlander is a fundamentally appealing vehicle, with a balanced appearance, tasteful detailing, and fender swells entirely appropriate in size and definition for a crossover SUV. I’m also a fan of the Highlander’s interior design and its no-nonsense controls and displays. In particular, I find the white and blue Optitron gauge displays soothing to view, and both the texture and gloss levels of interior plastics to be upscale.
However, there is room for improvement. Nobody spending close to $50,000 on a crossover will accept hard plastic on the dashboard and upper door panels, let alone someone spending $30,000. That’s gotta go with the 2014 redesign. Toyota also needs to ditch the cheap-looking fuzzy headliner for a cloth one similar to what’s installed in the new RAV4 models. I also think the fake wood trim in the Limited model exhibits an unnatural, almost nauseating, orange tint in sunlight.
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2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Road Test and Review: Comfort and Cargo
- Optional Leather Premium Package for standard model
I’m not a small person, measuring 72 inches tall and 40 inches around my waist. Yet I’m prepared to say that six people the same size as me can fit aboard the 2013 Highlander Hybrid for a short journey of an hour or less, as long as the people in the first two rows of seats are willing to slide forward a bit, and that four version of me could easily take a cross-country trip in this vehicle.
Most people who buy a Highlander Hybrid likely use it to carry four people anyway, simultaneously enjoying a spacious 42.3 cu.-ft. cargo area. For larger loads, the SUV’s second-row seats fold down to create 94.1 cu.-ft. of space, impressive for a midsize crossover, especially one equipped with a gas-electric powertrain.
Thanks to a power-adjustable thigh support for the driver’s seat cushion, soft door panel and center console armrests, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with a properly sized and shaped rim, the Highlander Hybrid proved quite comfortable. Outward visibility is excellent, thanks to large side mirrors, unobtrusive roof pillars, low rear head restraints, and a clear view through the rear window.
If anything reduces rather than enhances the Highlander Hybrid’s comfort levels, it is wind and road noise, especially on coarse pavement, and especially coming in from the rear of the vehicle. Hopefully, noise isolation and suppression are key upgrades coming with the new 2014 Highlander.
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2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Road Test and Review: Features and Controls
- Standard Display Audio touchscreen infotainment with Entune mobile applications and services
It’s not hard to figure out how a Toyota Highlander Hybrid works. For the most part, controls are located where you expect to find them, are clearly labeled, and though most are drawn from a parts bin that supplies components to a wide range of Toyota models, are refined in operation. The parabolic mirror inside of the sunglasses holder is particularly helpful for parents who need to mediate disputes between warring factions seated in the rear seats.
The exception, in my opinion, is the Display Audio touchscreen infotainment system that is now standard for the Highlander Hybrid. Equipped with a 6.1-inch color display that is often hard to read in sunlight and is frequently unresponsive to big fingers attempting to push virtual buttons, the rectangular Display Audio system is plugged into a trapezoidal hole in the Highlander’s dashboard, and replaces the previous radio’s giant knobs and buttons with small ones that are harder to see, read, and use.
I recognize that withholding Display Audio and Entune technology from Highlander buyers while waiting for a cleaner integration solution would not have been practical. And Toyota will almost certainly refine the approach in the next iteration of the Highlander, just as it has in the redesigned 2013 RAV4. But for now, I’d rather have the old setup. Certified used, anyone?
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2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Road Test and Review: Safety and Ratings
- No changes for 2013
Aside from a standard driver’s knee airbag and a reversing camera, the 2013 Highlander Hybrid is bereft of modern safety features like a blind-spot information system, a lane departure warning system, a forward collision warning system, or a cross-traffic alert system. Toyota doesn’t even offer its Safety Connect system with Automatic Collision Notification service on this model.
This lack of available safety gear, perhaps more than anything else, reflects the SUV’s advancing age and underscores why it is time for a new Highlander.
2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Crash-Test Ratings:
Though it lacks modern safety technologies, the Highlander Hybrid is a safe SUV. In crash tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, it receives a 4-star overall rating, while the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety calls the Highlander a “Top Safety Pick.”
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2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Road Test and Review: Engines and Fuel Economy
- No changes for 2013
The 2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid pairs a 3.5-liter V-6 engine with front and rear electric drive motors, a 288-volt sealed nickel-metal hydride battery pack, a continuously variable transmission, and a regenerative braking system. Total combined output measures 280 horsepower, making the Highlander Hybrid the most powerful version of Toyota’s midsize crossover SUV.
It’s also the most fuel-efficient version. All you need to remember is 28: 28 mpg in the city, 28 mpg on the highway, and 28 mpg in combined driving. During my weeklong test, I averaged 25.4 mpg without trying. Granted, 95% of my travel was conducted with the powertrain’s “Econ” mode activated, but I rarely used the “EV” mode, which would have certainly helped to improve my observed consumption number to some degree.
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2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Road Test and Review: Driving Impressions
The Toyota Highlander Hybrid is designed to carry as many passengers and as much cargo while getting the greatest possible gas mileage, and at these tasks, the SUV excels. In the course of achieving maximum efficiency, however, the Highlander Hybrid is a fairly dull vehicle to drive, and exhibits a few drivability quirks common to hybrids.
There is no shortage of power. With a gasoline-fueled V-6 engine and torque-laden electric motors front and rear, the Highlander Hybrid has no trouble launching itself from a stop. Shut off the EV and Econ modes, and this SUV is likely to surprise fellow motorists who happen to notice the “Hybrid” badges on its flanks. The standard continuously variable transmission (CVT) is fairly quiet and unobtrusive, its characteristic steady-state drone going largely unnoticed.
For more economical driving, use the EV or Econ modes. Because this is a “full” hybrid, meaning it can operate at low speeds on battery power alone, the Highlander Hybrid can silently glide along in heavy traffic and other low-speed driving situations – at least until the battery pack is depleted. If the driver dips too deeply into the throttle, or goes faster than 25 mph, the gasoline V-6 engine kicks in and the EV mode shuts off.
In Econ mode, the Highlander Hybrid responds like it may have taken a shot of NyQuil. To conserve fuel, the electric assist motors launch the SUV from a stop, the gas engine starting up once the vehicle is moving. Throttle response is duller and less eager to please, making the SUV feel lethargic. But these traits occur by design in an effort to conserve fuel. If you don’t like it, you can shut the Econ mode off. Or step harder on the gas pedal, like I did.
The Highlander Hybrid’s suspension tuning provides surprisingly connected ride and handling traits, typical of Toyota’s SUVs but not its cars, and handles with unexpected grace and athleticism considering my Limited test model’s base curb weight of 4,762 pounds. This talent does not come at the expense of ride quality, and while the Highlander Hybrid’s suspension is firm, it’s not harsh. The electric steering, though slow, also pleases with an artificial heft that is substituted for road feel.
Don’t get any ideas about tossing a Highlander Hybrid down a twisty road, though, because the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system is quite eager to tamp down any exploration of adhesion limits, expressing calibration that reflects low driving talent expectations.
The least favorable aspect of driving a Highlander Hybrid is using its brake pedal. Upon initial application, the pedal feels slow to respond, and then it grabs suddenly, feels sticky and uneven while stopping, and is difficult to modulate throughout the process. Granted, this is, historically, a common aspect of regenerative braking systems, but there is room for improvement here.
Aside from the brake pedal, though, the Highlander Hybrid is pleasing to drive and performs as intended by its engineers. There’s no fault in that.
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2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Road Test and Review: Final Thoughts
In terms of styling, size, practicality, performance, driving dynamics, crashworthiness, and fuel economy, there’s nothing wrong with the 2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. This is a functional, fuel-efficient, and safe family car.
What keeps this SUV on the fringes is a questionable value equation. The price tag is high. The quality of the interior is comparatively low. It takes a long time to recoup the cost of the hybrid powertrain in terms of gas-station visits. And it’s missing modern safety features that consumers expect on vehicles that cost upwards of $40,000.
Bring on the 2014 Highlander Hybrid.
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2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Road Test and Review: Pros and Cons
- Impressive fuel economy
- Plenty of power
- Genuine room for six adults
- Generous cargo area with third-row seat folded
- Attractive styling
- Simple interior
- “Top Safety Pick” crash-test rating
- Big price tag
- Inexpensive interior detailing
- Display Audio screen legibility and responsiveness
- Lacks modern safety technologies
- Wind and road noise
- Takes years to pay for hybrid premium
Toyota supplied the vehicle for this review
2013 Toyota Highlander Hybrid photos by Christian Wardlaw
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