Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Coined by French realist Gustave Flaubert (author of Madame Bovary), he is said to have lived by this maxim for most of his life. And even though we have no idea how Flaubert moved around 18th-century France, were he alive today, it’s a good bet he’d find the regular and orderly qualities of Toyota’s Highlander hybrid to his liking. High in practicality and low in passion, the Highlander hybrid is positioned perfectly to make middle-class dreams come true.
Spacious seating in rows one and two, tight build, quiet cabin.
Uninspired performance, funky braking, unexpectedly expensive.
In an effort to spice things up a bit for 2014, Toyota treated the Highlander to a complete exterior makeover, adding three inches of overall length and replacing the previous model’s boxy shape with some sharp and swoopy lines that echo the brand’s current design direction. But the guys in the powertrain department apparently didn’t get the memo about spicing things up. Returning for another tour of duty are the same 231-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 gas engine, pair of electric motors (one each for the front and rear axles), 45-kW nickel-metal hydride battery pack, and continuously variable transmission that motivated the previous version. Not surprisingly, the combined net horsepower remains steadfast at 280.
In typical day-to-day operation, the gas-electric hybrid system remains transparent, seamlessly switching the gasoline engine on and off as needed without distress. Depress the accelerator past the three-quarter mark, however, and things get noisy, as the CVT lets the gas engine wind up, putting the coarser side of its personality front and center. Unfortunately, forward progress isn’t commensurate with its bluster. We endured the drone and slight vibration long enough to record a 7.6-second 0-to-60 sprint, as well as a 15.8-second quarter-mile. That’s only a few 10ths off the 7.3- and 15.6-second times recorded by the nonhybrid 2014 Highlander V-6 AWD we tested. Even though neither version of the Highlander can be classified as quick, it’s at least comforting to know that not much performance is sacrificed in the quest for environmental virtue.
More telling is the 24 mpg we recorded in mixed driving. Only 4 mpg south of the EPA’s combined number of 28, it’s a significant improvement over the 19 mpg we recorded with a nearly identically outfitted V-6 model. But you’ll pay up front for that efficiency, as our test car’s sticker checked in more than $5500 higher than the V-6 non-hybrid. Whether or not this disparity works in your favor depends on your individual driving habits, and quite likely the opinions of your social circle.
Braking to a stop from 70 mph consumed 187 feet, within spitting distance of the 188 feet required by our nonhybrid V-6 Highlander. But beyond the numbers, the Highlander hybrid’s slightly schizophrenic brake-pedal behavior irritated us in day-to-day driving. Initial braking starts out smooth and linear, but you reach a point where the pedal travel has a diminished effect on deceleration. The nonlinear braking feels downright unnatural. Dynamically speaking, the Highlander hybrid is cut from the same cloth as the conventional model’s. Content to stay in lane without correction, the steering nevertheless is largely indifferent to small corrections and sluggish to follow abrupt inputs. Turn hard into a corner, and the net is significant understeer—our tester labeled it “excessive”—and a heaping helping of body lean. But again, intensity is not the Highlander’s mission. Its strength is providing calm, consistent transportation.
A Calming Influence
To that end, the interior checks all the right boxes: It’s quiet (69 dBA at 70 mph), impacts are well isolated and muted, and materials are segment appropriate. You can’t miss the large shelf residing below the dash that, despite a convenient cable pass-through that keeps personal-device cables organized and a soft-touch surface to keep them from sliding around, likely will become an unorganized and fully visible repository for the detritus of family life. On the other hand, the gigantic storage bin below the center armrest easily swallowed a radar detector, two handheld video games, and a DSLR camera with room to spare, keeping them out of sight while parked.
Leather-trimmed, heated, and cooled front seats come standard in the hybrid, and the leather-trimmed second-row buckets—a bench seat is not available in the hybrid—now travel about three inches farther forward, providing easier access to the third row. Operated with a single lever, sliding the second-row buckets forward proved to be simple, a boon for those with children to herd. Although Toyota claims the 60/40 third-row seat is 3.3 inches wider than it was previously, it does little to shatter the stereotype of the wayback being suitable only for children and contortionists. Speaking of which, Toyota managed to position the hybrid battery pack and AWD hardware in such a fashion that it doesn’t infringe on cargo capacity, the hybrid offering the same 13.6 cubic feet of storage space behind the third row and 42 behind the second row as in the regular Highlander. Models without the panoramic sunroof get a tad more space, measuring in at 13.8 and 42.3 cubic feet.
Only five options appeared on the order sheet for our already well-equipped Highlander Limited Platinum AWD hybrid test vehicle: a first-aid kit ($29), carpeted floor and cargo mats ($225), a cargo net ($49), body-side molding ($209), and running boards ($599). All in, the as-tested price came to a whopping $51,761 (the base price for a Highlander hybrid is an equally lofty $48,225), a number that might throw a kink in Flaubert’s whole “regular and orderly” concept.
Suburban super-moms, fire-eating sideshow freaks, and rogue self-mutilation performance artists take note: If you’re looking for a predictable antidote to the hassles of daily life with a nod to ecoconsciousness thrown in for good measure, the Highlander hybrid will get the job done without stealing your spotlight. Just keep the price in check, lest your bourgeois contemporaries accuse you of selling out.