Unlike dedicated hybrids without a comparable gas-only version, the 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid carries its gasoline-electric powertrain in a body that looks just like the conventional Highlander mid-size crossover utility vehicle. It’s a family-friendly hybrid utility vehicle, spacious and well-equipped, though hardly a car for the enthusiastic driver.
It shares the standard Highlander’s pros and cons, with seating for seven at the top of the advantages list. In fact, it’s the sole seven-passenger hybrid vehicle sold in the U.S. today, with a second seat usable even by large adults—though that third-row seat is suitable only for kids. The fold-down middle seat in the second row is also particularly clever, making it much easier for those kids to pass though into the rearmost row.
The Hybrid Synergy Drive powertrain is shared with the much fancier Lexus RX 450h. It’s made up of a 3.5-liter V-6 engine mated to Toyota’s electronic continuously variable transmission, which contains two electric motor-generators. They both recharge the nickel-metal-hydride battery pack and supplement engine torque in powering the front wheels.
Combined output of the engine and motors is a substantial 280 horsepower. The standard all-wheel-drive is provided by a third electric motor driving the rear wheels, though it’s for light-duty use only (unlike the fully mechanical all-wheel-drive in the 2011 Ford Escape Hybrid).
The 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is EPA-rated at 28 mpg city, 28 mpg highway, for a combined overall rating of 28 mpg. That’s good gas mileage for a large crossover like this one, and upwards of 25 percent more fuel-efficient than the 22-mpg combined rating for the four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive gasoline Highlander. And if's a huge improvement on the dismal 19 mpg of the comparable V-6 version with all-wheel-drive.
The improvement from fitting the hybrid system, however, doesn’t seem as great as in smaller Toyota products, because the overall miles per gallon are lower. That simply reflects the fact that it takes more energy to push this large, heavy vehicle through the air.
Other advantages to the Highlander Hybrid include stellar safety ratings and equipment, including a “Top Safety Pick” from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). There’s also a substantial list of standard equipment even before you start ticking boxes on the options list. Two trim levels—base and the top-of-the-line Limited—are offered on the Highander Hybrid, plus an options list including various sound systems, a power moonroof, a navigation system, a power tailgate, and various other luxury and convenience items.
Styling is somewhere between unadventurous and invisible, though its intended audience of families may not particularly care. For 2011, the Highlander Hybrid received a mild styling refresh—the first since its launch as a 2008 model.
The suspension and handling are soft and numb, with the electric power steering lacking any road feel at all. The tradeoff, though, is that it’s quiet and comfortable inside, making it a good (if uninvolving) transport vehicle for longer family trips that sips rather than guzzles gasoline.
For more details, see the full review of the 2011 Toyota Highlander series on our sister site, TheCarConnection.