The Toyota Highlander is a pleasant vehicle to drive. Most notable is the ride quality, which is luxurious or soft, depending on your viewpoint. Even with the available 19-inch wheels, the suspension smoothes all but the most jarring bumps. There is a bit of unwanted float on highways and on winding roads, though, and some folks find it too soft. Hybrids have slightly more road feel, but are still quite comfortable, making them a better choice for those who find the standard suspension too soft.
The suspension emphasizes a soft ride over taut handling. All models lean when cornering and braking. Steering feel is light, but the response is somewhat slow. We would not describe the Highlander as nimble. The Nissan Murano offers better handling. Traction control and electronic stability control come standard on the Highlander.
The 3.5-liter V6 propels the Highlander front-wheel-drive models from 0 to 60 mph in 7.6 seconds, 7.8 seconds with all-wheel drive. A manual shift gate allows choosing the gear you want. From inside the cabin, the V6 can barely be heard, emitting only a refined growl under hard acceleration. In all models, wind noise is well-checked, and the only notable interior noise is some tire hum on rough pavement.
The all-wheel-drive system in the gas models provides a full-time 50/50 front/rear torque split. In Hybrid models, the AWD system is front-drive biased, but when it detects slippage, the rear-mounted electric motor can kick in to deliver up to 25 percent of the available power to the rear wheels. Both systems will help you get the kids to school on snowy days, and we did just that.
We tested a Highlander in the Pacific Northwest in the middle of the winter. We drove around for two days on icy roads with our Hybrid, and it performed brilliantly, both to provide traction and to stop the vehicle safely. We tackled steep icy hills and the all-wheel-drive did its thing to keep moving the car forward without noticeable slipping. We charged down those icy hills and floored the brake pedal, and the ABS stopped the Highlander as quickly as possible. We tested the steering during ABS braking by making S turns while it was sliding on the ice. The Highlander's control was perfect.
It was fitted with Toyo A20 Open Country HT tires, P245/55R19, not even the Open Country snow tire. They came with the $1020 option for the handsome 10-spoke 19-inch alloy wheels. We recommend winter tires for the best traction on snow.
We also hung it out in icy curves (at relatively slow speeds), and the stability control kept the Highlander true to its intended path. What a wonderful feeling of security on those icy roads: whether accelerating uphill, hard braking, or around curves, the Highlander covered us.
We also drove a V6 Highlander Limited, on the same icy roads a few days later, and it too took everything in stride. It used similar 19-inch Bridgestone tires, the Dueler H/L brand, not the winter Blizzak tires. The anti-lock brakes in the Limited were rougher than on the Hybrid, with more noise and pedal vibration. At one point sliding down a steep icy hill at 3-4 mph, ABS fully engaged, we tried to steer away from the snow-covered ditch at the side of the road, but the front wheels continued to slide and not steer; apparently there is a limit, when they say you can steer with ABS engaged. So we tapped the DAC button by the shift lever, and Downhill Assist Control kicked in. It's standard equipment on AWD models. We totally took our feet off the pedals, the steering in the front wheels came back, and we maintained that safe crawl to the bottom of the icy hill. Look Ma, no feet.
Speaking of ice, it obscures the rearview camera lens.
The Hybrid powertrain, called Hybrid Synergy Drive, mates a 3.5-liter V6 with three electric motors for a total of 280 horsepower, up 10 horsepower from last year. The powertrain is a little rougher than the standard V6 but is still quite refined. The transmission is a continuously variable automatic that constantly adjusts gearing ratios instead of changing gears.
Like all hybrids, when you first turn the key, nothing seems to happen. But it is ready and operational. The gas engine just doesn't start until it's needed. However for us it was needed virtually all the time. We drove our Hybrid around town in cold weather for a week, and the gas engine was needed to power the accessories. Stopped at a redlight, at the drive-through window at the bank, anywhere: the gas engine kept running. We averaged 18.2 miles per gallon for that week, rarely reaching 35 mph. If the EPA gets 28 mpg in the city, their city must include a lot of 25-mph zones with no stoplights.
Under the right conditions (full battery charge, warm day, not using heat or air conditioning), you can press the EV button and drive the Hybrid up to two miles at less than 25 mph on electric power only. For example, looking for a parking space at the mall. The Highlander Hybrid is the first Toyota hybrid to offer an EV button in the U.S. We suggest using it around town, more than we apparently should have.
The continuously variable transmission feels natural. It has a standard drive mode, which allows the Hybrid to freewheel down hills, as well as a B mode, which uses more engine compression to slow the vehicle when the driver's foot is off the throttle, while recharging the battery pack more aggressively.