If you are shopping for a midsize SUV, with three rows of seats and a hybrid power train, the Highlander Hybrid is your best choice. In fact, it is your only choice, there’s nothing that competes with it. The Hybrid gives you better gas mileage than the standard Highlander, but at a higher price.

The Highlander was updated last year, and carries over unchanged. All of the updates that were made in 2017 were welcomed improvements, except for the styling, which gets mixed reviews. The grille, in particular, with its five chrome slats, gets slammed for being too truck-like. A black-trimmed version, which is less obtrusive, is available on the standard Highlander, but not on the Hybrid. Too bad.

In contrast to its blunt exterior, the Highlander’s cabin is quite refined. Leather seats are standard, and soft-touch materials abound. The dash has a leather-like top surface, subtle woodgrain trim, a large, integrated touchscreen and a cleverly designed shelf at midlevel to hold small items, like sunglasses and your smartphone. Leather seats on my test car looked like they came out of a Lexus.

The Highlander comes in two configurations. Lower range models carry eight passengers, using a bench seat in the second row. Limited versions get two captain’s chairs in the middle, and hold seven. Front passengers have supportive buckets with power adjusters (most models), but surprisingly, there is no height adjuster for the passenger. Second-row seats slide fore and aft, which can provide a tad more foot space for the cramped occupants in the “way back.” Behind the third row is a modest 13.8 cu.-ft. of cargo space, but that triples in size with the back row folded down.

Highlander Hybrids are powered by a 3.5-liter, V-6 gas engine teamed with three electric motors. One motor powers the front wheels—another sends juice to the rear, and the third activates the starter motor and other functions. A nickel-metal-hydride battery pack stores electricity beneath the floor. This hybrid system generates 306 horsepower. A CVT automatic transmission transfers power to the all-wheel-drive system. The Hybrid is rated at 28 mpg, six mpg more than the gas-only Highlander.

Toyota offers the Hybrid in four levels of trim, LE, XLE, Limited and Limited Platinum. The base LE comes with features such as cloth seats, six-speaker audio, a touchscreen and Bluetooth. However, more customers will be attracted to the XLE with leather upholstery, power front seats, a moonroof and a power tailgate. Moving further upscale, Limited buyers get second row captain’s chairs, premium stereo and rear-parking sensors. The Limited Platinum heaps on more luxury with a huge panoramic moonroof, front parking sensors and more.

Toyota includes advanced safety technology on all Highlander models. Pre-collision warning and braking (with pedestrian detection), lane-departure monitoring and intervention, adaptive cruise control and automatic high-beam headlights are standard. Blind-spot warning and rear-cross-traffic alert are also standard on all models except the LE.

The extensive luxury and safety equipment is all well and good, but how does the Highlander drive? The Toyota engineers tuned their family hauler for a cushy ride, rather than crisp handling. The steering is numb, so drivers have little feel of the road. The Highlander also leans mightily in sharp turns. On the other hand, the ride is very compliant. It absorbs bumps very well. And the Highlander is exceptionally quiet. The designers did a masterful job with sound insolation. The Highlander might not be the best SUV on twisty roads, but it’s a great highway cruiser.

The Hybrid models cost anywhere from $1,350 to $2,130 more than the gas-only Highlanders, depending on the model. The LE starts at $37,715. The best-selling XLE goes for $42,775. However, if you want more luxury, the Limited is $46,205, and the Limited Platinum is a hefty $49,325. Although the Hybrid is more expensive, I doubt if the premium price will put off many buyers who really want to drive a gas/electric SUV.



Attractive Interior

Standard Safety Features

Supple Ride

Polarizing Styling

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