Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, I got my fill of snow. Shoveling it was the worst, especially the icy, densely compacted, salt-encrusted mess at the foot of our driveway. That, and the months of cold temperatures, and the leafless trees, and the leaden gray skies led me to leave Michigan after college, returning only when necessary.
Now a Californian, I’ve escaped the snow, except for an annual pilgrimage to the Sierra Nevadas with which I have a love/hate relationship. You see, I married someone who immigrated to Los Angeles as a child, and she loves the snow. And our two kids love the snow. And so, to the snow, I go.
We have a good time, of course, and the Mammoth Lakes region certainly is more picturesque than St. Clair Shores in the winter, but when the time comes to pack up the sleds, the boots, and the snow pants to drive back to sunny, warm, palm-dotted L.A., I’m grinning from ear to ear.
This year, our ride north was a 2019 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. An 8-passenger crossover SUV, the Highlander is popular with families for its roomy and practical interior, its reliability and safety ratings, and its ability to retain its value over time. Depending on the trim level, the hybrid version is anywhere from $1,350 to $2,130 more expensive than versions with the standard V6 engine and all-wheel drive and promises 28 mpg in combined driving according to the EPA.
Prices start at $37,170 for the Hybrid LE trim level and can rise to more than $50,000 for Hybrid Limited Platinum trim and a handful of recommended dealer-installed accessories. My test model came in mid-grade XLE trim with a rear-seat entertainment system and a carpeted mat package, and wore a window sticker reading $43,589.
“Hybrid” Doesn’t Always Mean “Slow”
Because it has “hybrid” in its name, you might automatically assume that this SUV is a slow, underpowered, eco-tuned paragon of efficiency. In reality, this is anything but an oversized Prius.
Toyota bases the Highlander’s hybrid powertrain around an Atkinson-cycle 3.5-liter V6 engine, which essentially trades low-end power output for greater fuel economy. But don’t worry, because the front and rear electric motors deliver a wallop of instant torque when you accelerate in order to make up for it. Additionally, the rear electric motor essentially gives the Highlander Hybrid standard AWD.
If there is a downside to this drivetrain, it’s the droning continuously variable transmission, another fuel-saving component. Around town and at cruising speed on the highway, you don’t notice it. But when you’re accelerating hard, it saps some of the fun you might otherwise be enjoying from the Highlander Hybrid’s 306 combined horsepower.
Now that we’ve established that a Highlander Hybrid is anything but weak, I’ll tell you that during a week of driving, including our 3-night stay in the mountains, the SUV averaged 24.6 mpg. That’s not anywhere close to the official EPA rating, but in the Highlander’s defense, most of our miles were covered with four people aboard and a loaded cargo area.
As far as ride and handling go, the Highlander delivers smooth and secure driving dynamics. The XLE sits on 18-inch wheels wrapped in 245/60 tires, and those thick sidewalls soak up lousy pavement. Suspension tuning is fairly firm, giving the Highlander a sporty feel from behind the wheel, and the steering is a terrific companion on a road trip because it requires little in the way of correction.
A regenerative braking system is designed to capture the energy created when you bring the Highlander to a stop, feeding it to the nickel-metal hydride battery pack that powers the SUV’s electric motors. The pedal can feel a little sticky, especially at low speeds, but this is a common characteristic of non-blended regen braking components.
Urban settings extract greater efficiency from the Highlander Hybrid because at low speeds it offers an EV driving mode. Let’s say you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. You can activate EV driving mode, and creep along on the electricity stored in the battery.
My family and I didn’t spend much time in conditions like that. Instead, we bombed up California 395 at 80 mph, at least until we reached the Lake Crowley area. Beyond this point, chains were a requirement even for vehicles with AWD. My wife and I installed them, then kept speeds below 35 mph for the next three days, the Highlander vibrating and humming on the ice-coated roads of the region.
With chains on, the Highlander was unstoppable, and I didn’t get a chance to see how well the rear electric motor improved traction. But given the conditions, that was probably for the best.
Low-tech Infotainment, No-tech Connected Services
For whatever reason, many car companies fail to prioritize front passenger comfort, and that’s the case with the Highlander Hybrid XLE.
The driver’s seat offers 12-way power adjustment, faces a thick-rimmed and leather-wrapped steering wheel, and nicely padded armrests make long stints on the road more pleasurable. Meanwhile, my wife’s front passenger’s seat offered no better than 4-way power adjustment, putting her too close to the floor on a flat cushion lacking thigh support. Was she happy? No.
Our elementary school-aged kids didn’t complain about the Highlander’s back seat, and our test vehicle had the optional Blu-ray rear entertainment system. Normally, we don’t allow them to use these, but once you’ve seen one snow-capped mountain you’ve evidently seen them all. When the 9-inch screen is lowered from the roof-mounted system, however, it completely blocks sightlines in the rearview mirror.
Heated front seats came in handy in sub-freezing temperatures, and the kids appreciated the Highlander’s triple-zone climate control system and manual rear side window shades. Heated side mirrors and a wiper de-icing system also helped to improve visibility.
We didn’t use the Highlander’s rather cramped third-row seat, which optimistically includes three sets of seatbelts that could only be simultaneously used by children. By folding it down, cargo capacity expanded from a meager 13.8 cubic-feet to a useful 42.3 cu.-ft. That was enough space for our luggage, snow gear, and sleds. Should you require it, maximum volume measures 83.2 cu.-ft. with the second-row seat folded down.
Toyota is rolling out a new Entune 3.0 infotainment system in each of its redesigned models, complete with Apple CarPlay and, for 2020, Android Auto smartphone integration systems. The 2019 Highlander, meanwhile, still has the old Entune system. And the test vehicle arrived with an expired satellite radio subscription, which is free only for the first three months of ownership.
Without SiriusXM, Apple CarPlay, or Wi-Fi, we had two options. One was to play whatever music was on my wife’s phone, some of which I actually like. The other was for me to grab my weathered leather CD case out of my old Miata, and use the Highlander’s CD player.
Something else the Highlander Hybrid XLE lacked was Toyota’s Safety Connect services package, which would’ve equipped this family vehicle with a free one-year subscription to automatic collision notification, emergency assistance, roadside assistance, and more. Toyota only offers this in the most expensive version of the Highlander, the Limited Platinum.
Practicality Over Personality
Toyota Safety Sense is standard on all Highlanders, providing adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning with pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, lane keeping assist, and automatic high-beam headlights. Upgrade to XLE trim and the SUV also has a blind spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert.
Aside from the truly crappy headlights, the Highlander is a safe vehicle. During long stretches of empty highway, the adaptive cruise control worked perfectly, while on the narrow freeway lanes of Los Angeles the lane keeping assist system proved beneficial. Thankfully, we didn’t test the automatic emergency braking system or the Highlander’s “Top Safety Pick” rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
While our observed fuel economy was disappointing, and though my wife wasn’t particularly comfortable during the five-hour trek to the snow, overall the Highlander Hybrid proved itself as the roomy, reliable, practical, and safe crossover SUV it’s always been. And even at 24.6 mpg, it still offered more than 400 miles of driving range between visits to the gas station.
That might not sound like a ringing endorsement of this vehicle, but when you’ve got kids, jobs, activities, pets, and more to deal with on a daily basis, the last thing many people need is a family car with “personality.”