2012 Toyota Highlander Hybrid: Quick Drive, Highest MPG With Third Row

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If you need to carry up to seven people at once, and you're quite horrified by the mileage ratings on most of the three-row vehicles that are truly up to the task, we have the vehicle for you: the 2012 Toyota Highlander Hybrid.

With EPA ratings of 28 mpg city, 28 highway, it's the highest-mileage three-row vehicle, based on Combined ratings—and it's by far the best in the city.

But as we found out in a weeklong drive, the Highlander Hybrid might not return figures quite that high in real-world highway driving.

However, there's a lot of good-old wholesome family vehicle in the latest versions of the Highlander; they're cavernous, thanks to a nice low load floor and flexible seating that helps make the most of any combination of passengers and cargo. Even though the seats aren't all that supportive, there's a good view outward; the second row felt just as comfortable for adults, and easy to get into. Meanwhile, those second-row seats slide forward with a lever, and provided you have a little bit of dexterity you climb up and over to the rearmost seat.

We opted to simply keep the third row folded flat (it flips up easily when you need it, with a strap). The second and third rows line up quite well for a nearly flat load floor—and up to 94 cubic feet of cargo space.

The Highlander does look pretty good from the outside. We like the blue-tinted headlight lenses of the Hybrid, as well as the extra chrome accents in front and the clean sheetmetal; but with very modest badging, this is not a model that's going to be identified as a hybrid from afar. Inside, the instrument-panel design strikes a middle ground between the chunky look of the more trucklike 4Runner SUV and the smoother, more horizontal themes of the latest Camry.

Pack the Wet Wipes

That's the good, but the bad is that the Highlander Hybrid has one of the dullest, most hard-and-plasticky interiors we've been exposed to over the past several model years. The entire interior feels designed to wipe clean of spills—and it might well be—but that's to the detriment of any upscale impression. What's more, the 'leather' seats didn't feel like that—rather, a bit rubbery when running fingers over them.

While the Highlander Hybrid's styling is simple and straightforward, its powertrain feels anything but that. The transitions from all-electric to electric-gasoline power in this full hybrid are about the best they get—if you turn off the audio and climate control systems, you can hear the engine start up, but there's never a hesitation. Compared to the Toyota Prius or Toyota Camry, the threshold for all-electric operation feels a little lower, with the gasoline engine starting earlier.

With this new-generation model, introduced last year, Toyota has replaced the former 3.3-liter V-6 with a version of the familiar 3.5-liter; the V-6 makes 231 horsepower and 214 lb-ft, and it's supplemented by a 167-hp electric-motor system at the front, plus a 68-hp electric motor at the rear wheels—altogether producing 280 hp. Curiously, the electric motor system is the only way that the rear wheels are propelled.

Detached from reality

To say that the Highlander Hybrid isn't all that exciting to drive would be an understatement. We simply can't think of another vehicle that's less engaging and more detached than this.

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Comments (8)
  1. So all that expensive technology and totally sacrificing the ride experience has resulted in very little improvement in efficiency. At some point we need to accept that all that room for efficiency improvement for ICE vehicles the industry claims still exists isn't really there.

    Maybe the EPA should retest this vehicle assuming that its current rating for it is based on numbers supplied by the manufacturer.

  2. Another underachieving Toyota...

  3. Hmmm... I don't understand. I have a 2008 Highlander Hybrid and I am getting 25.5 miles per gallon on average driving... not at all trying to sip gas, and thats combined city/freeway. I suspect a lead-foot. Anyway for the room (I am a big guy at 6'3") NOTHING was nearly as roomy. Yes, Ford had something with better milage yet I couldn't fit. Just some missing perspective...

  4. We have a 2012 Highlander Hybrid and our mileage is right at 29.8 after 7,800 miles. Granted, we do quite a bit of highway driving, but it has never been under 29 mpg.

  5. Current hybrid technology doesn't really do much for freeway driving. Any improvement in fuel economy is probably due to different engine tuning (trade off of low rpm torque for higher efficiency) and CVT (optimal rpm). Hydrid really make a difference when there is a lot of start and stop, speed up and slow down, or going up hill and back down. If you want to save fuel on freeway driving, especially if you want to go very fast, a sedan with a diesel engine is the way to go.

  6. While certainly smaller, I believe my Mazda 5 gets slightly better mileage with a third row.

  7. I've had my 2011 HH for over 15 months, but only 6k miles. I've averaged over 30mpg city or highway around Chicago. With warm temps and 100% suburban driving, I'm over 38 mpg after 300 miles on my current tank. I'm hardly an expert hypermiler; I'm sure a pro would be above 40mpg in good conditions. Sure, the handling and road feel are lacking, but I'm hardly road-racing a 4500 lb. SUV. I'm grateful for the tradeoff of a smooth and quiet ride. Driven properly, no other 3-row vehicle compares in city fuel economy.

  8. For green car enthusiasts who want more space than a Prius V or Fusion, my mileage ended up being 39mpg over 600 miles on that tank. I'm getting 38.5 mpg after 200 miles on my current tank around town. In between, I averaged 31 mpg over 1500 miles on a trip around Lake Erie. 31 mpg is also my overall average after almost 8000 miles now. If you're in a hilly or cold area or just drive it like a regular car, you can probably expect EPA numbers or even worse. For most people in typical urban or suburban areas, you should be able to do better than 30mpg with a little driving experience and a few hybrid hypermiling tips.

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