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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