Vehicles on Vacation: 2017 Toyota Highlander Hybrid [Review]

2017 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

An Astute Family Crossover Ready for the Long Haul

The 2017 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is spacious, strong, and full of luxury and tech features that families on the go can’t live without. Now in its fourth year, the third generation Highlander receives a mid-cycle refresh that includes a new V6 engine, Toyota’s Safety Sense with pre-collision and pedestrian detection as standard equipment across all trim levels, and some exterior spruce-work.

2017 total solar eclipse
This composite image of eleven pictures shows the progression of a total solar eclipse at Madras High School in Madras, Oregon on Monday, August 21, 2017. A total solar eclipse swept across a narrow portion of the contiguous United States from Lincoln Beach, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. Photo Credit: (NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

With three rows of seating and accommodation for eight, the refreshed Highlander is an excellent choice for short or long trips. Thus, Toyota graciously loaned us a 2017 Highlander Hybrid for a road trip to Oregon for viewing the solar eclipse. Our ride for this phenomenal celestial event was a silver metallic Highlander Hybrid XLE with all-wheel drive prepared for the long haul with a rear seat entertainment system and 3,500-pound towing capacity.

What’s New for 2017

This year, Toyota added two entry level grades for a total of four Highlander Hybrid trim levels to choose from: the LE, XLE, Limited, and Limited Platinum trims. Previously, buyers had to shell out $50k for the Limited and Limited Platinum trims just to get the hybrid version of Toyota’s popular family hauler. Now the cost of entry is lower.

The most noticeable exterior change for the 2017 Highlander is a new trapezoidal grille that drops all the way down. Additionally, the headlights have been slightly reshaped and the corners of the bumper are exaggerated a little more. From the rear view, sharp observers with notice the redesigned taillights and LED-lighting elements.

2017 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

The new-for-2017 V6 engine produces 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque for the gas-powered models, which represents a considerable upgrade over the 2016’s 270 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque. The Highlander Hybrid system delivers a net system total of 306 horsepower and is paired with a continuously variable transmission (CVT). EPA estimates the Highlander Hybrid is good for 29 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway. Our long road trip, of which 98 percent of the miles were driven at freeway speeds, netted 27 mpg overall.

If you are curious, the gas-powered 2017 Highlander V6 will return 21 miles per gallon in the city, 27 mpg on the highway and 23 mpg in combined driving. The all-wheel drive configuration lowers the city- and combined-driving estimates by 1 mpg. Improved fuel economy comes from a variety of clever engineering solutions within the engine itself, as well as a new 8-speed automatic transmission.

Automatic stop/start, a standard feature on all trims except the LE V6, saves fuel and cuts down emissions by shutting off the engine when the vehicle comes to a stop. Lifting your foot off the brake pedal restarts the engine and is much less noticeable than many other automakers that use this technology.

Now moving forward, all trim levels come standard with Toyota Safety Sense package of accident-avoidance technologies. Helping to avoid accidents is a forward-collision warning and automatic braking system that is on the watch for both cars and pedestrians. Other driver-assist features include lane-departure warning and steering assist, automatic high beams, and adaptive cruise control. This becomes significant when looking at how these features are options with most competitors and often restricted to the upper trims. One example that comes close to matching the Highlander is the Honda Pilot that offers its safety tech on all but its base trim. In our opinion, based on time behind the wheel, the Pilot doesn’t execute its driver assist features as smoothly as the Highlander.

2017 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

All Highlander Hybrid models come equipped with Electronic On-Demand All-Wheel-Drive System with intelligence (AWD-i) as standard. Instead of transfer gears and a drive shaft to the rear wheels, this AWD-i system employs a second, independent electric motor to drive the rear wheels when needed to help maintain optimal traction.

To help save fuel, we observed the EV all-electric mode engage at speeds up to 40 mph when the load is light or in stop/go city traffic conditions. Not only is this hybrid system fuel conscious, it is seamless in operation when switching between all-battery, battery assisted, or simply when the gasoline motor is at work driving the wheels.

Occupant Opulence

Where the Highlander nicely excels are the numerous cabin amenities that are both practical and under appreciated. There is a multitude of cup holders and bottle holders for everyone. Door pockets, cubby bins, phone trays, an oversized armrest storage bin large enough to hide a cantaloupe, four USB ports to charge the family’s array of electronic devices, and sunshades for the rear windows add to the cabin’s advantage.

Automatic climate controls are available for both front and rear passengers. Thank goodness the leather seats were supportive and comfortable after many hours spent on the road. In the XLE, the front seats are heated. On a summer road trip with temps soaring close to triple digits, vented seats would have been a welcome feature during our long drive to Oregon. The one creature comfort we yearned for just happened to be a feature exclusive to the Limited and Limited Platinum trims.

Even though the Toyota Highlander is an 8-passenger vehicle, we suggest the third-row seat be reserved for human beings that have short legs or the flexibility of a gymnast. Adults will fit if occupants in the second-row seats are willing to slide forward to create extra leg space. Otherwise, fold the third-row seats down and expand the cargo capacity from 13.8 cubic feet to a more useful 42.3 cubic feet. Drop the 2nd-row seats and there is now over 83 cubic that can be filled with family members, their gear, and lots of extras.

The interior features an 8-inch touchscreen powered by Toyota’s Entune infotainment system. The interface works decently but the graphics are overdue for a new look. The navigation system got a heavy workout since we were traversing all over Oregon and unfamiliar with the territory – no complaints here. What we did miss was the option to use our phone apps. Toyota refuses to include Apple CarPlay and Android Auto in their system from the perspective of protecting your private data.

Keeping it Real

If you need a lot of space and an SUV with all-wheel drive, but hate the feeling of piloting a bus, the Toyota Highlander is ideal. It doesn’t feel big from behind the wheel and handles turns and parking in tight areas with relative ease. Acceleration is more than sufficient for getting on the freeway. Just be really, really sure before attempting passing maneuvers. Passengers will enjoy the comfortable seats, the generous cabin space, and the numerous amenities that make any trip more bearable.

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2017 Toyota Highlander Hybrid XLE V6 AWD-i Specs
MSRP $41,330
Price as tested $54.080 (rear seat DVD entertainment system, destination charges)
Engine 3.5L direct-injection V6
Power (hp) 306 hp (hybrid system net horsepower)
Torque (lb-ft) TBD
Electric motor – front wheels 167 hp / 247 lb-ft / AC 650V
Electric motor – rear wheels 68 hp / 103 lb-ft / AC 650V
Battery 45 kW 288V Ni-MH
Transmission HSD planetary gear E-CVT
Drivetrain layout AWD
EPA-estimated fuel economy mpg 29 / 27 / 28 (city/hwy/combined)
Curb weight 4,379 lbs FWD | 4,512 lbs AWD
Wheelbase 109.8 inches
Length | Width | Height 192.5 in. | 75.8 in | 70 in. (w/shark fin antenna)
Ground clearance 8.0 inches
Approach/departure angle 18/23.1 degrees (LE/XLE models) | 17.6/23.9 degrees (Limited/Limited Platinum)
Seating capacity 8
EPA passenger volume 142.2 cu. ft. w/moonroof (XLE)
EPA maximum cargo volume (XLE) 83.2 cu. ft.
Cargo volume behind 2nd row 42.3 cu. ft.
Cargo volume behind 3rd row 13.8 cu. ft.
Curb weight 4,910 lbs.
Maximum towing weight 3,500 lbs.
Destination + handling charge $940

Other crossovers with 3 rows of seating to consider are the Kia Sorento, VW Atlas, Honda Pilot, Nissan Pathfinder, Dodge Durango, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Mazda CX-9, Hyundai Santa Fe, Ford Explorer, Ford Flex, Chevrolet Traverse, and GMC Acadia.