Toyota better be careful. It might be cutting into its Lexus sales with its latest Highlander.
Who needs a Lexus when Toyota’s Highlander is so darned luxurious?
First, the styling is sharp for a sport-ute. Everything from the hood creasing to the elongated swept-back lights to the profile make the Highlander look like it’s in motion, even as it sits, all 4,861 lbs. of it, in the driveway. Mine was a handsome silver model, the top-level Limited Platinum version with hybrid power system and all-wheel drive.
Price of admission? $51,761 as delivered, with a base price of $49,790 and an $860 delivery fee, plus a few options. A Lexus will cost you more.
Yet Highlander is pretty much state of the art luxury as it arrives in Limited Platinum trim.
Seats are leather and powered, with both front and second row seats heated. Front seats are cooled too, with three settings, and the thick leather steering wheel is heated to take winter’s chill away quickly. There’s a power rear hatch (more about that later), and a power panoramic sunroof and shade.
On the tech side, the Highlander Limited Platinum includes a rearview camera and motion detection, plus blind-spot warning system. There’s a pre-collision warning system that helps brake the car if you’re approaching a stationary or slow-moving object too quickly, the cruise control system is dynamic radar controlled, which means it eases up on the gas pedal when a slower vehicle pulls in front of you on the highway. There are automatic high-beam headlights, three-zone climate controls, a lane departure system, HomeLink communications along with a fancy JBL sound system.
Navigation, steering wheel mounted radio and cruise controls? Sure! Automatic headlights and two-memory seat controls? Absolutely. Super quiet luxury interior? You had to ask?
Pretty much the Highlander Limited Premium has it all, as it rightly should at this price.
But this model goes a step further by adding Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive System, which uses batteries, an electric motor and regenerative braking to help boost its fuel economy. Those work in conjunction with Toyota’s reliable 3.5-liter V6 that in a previous drive, a few years back, netted me 18.4 miles per gallon.
This time, with the hybrid system, I got 28.0 mpg, with about 70% of my driving being on the highway, but a good deal of time spent sitting in heavy traffic waiting to drive home from July 4th fireworks. Ah, but that sitting doesn’t slurp down the gas as you would in a gas-only powered ute. Instead, the Highlander switches to electric power to keep your accessories (AC is important this time of year) running. If the batteries start to run low, then the engine will kick back in.
Driving, as I’ve said in previous hybrid reviews, the switch from electric when the vehicle first starts moving, to gas power when you need acceleration, is seamless. But, as I’ve also said, acceleration is a little less peppy with a hybrid, especially with a continuously variable transmission. Make no mistake, the 231-horse V6 and hybrid electric motor duo give the ute good power, but acceleration feels a little soft unless you tromp the accelerator. Highlander though easily cruises up to and remains at highway speeds, feeling smooth throughout the power band.
Ride is excellent too with independent front suspension featuring MacPherson struts and a double wishbone rear suspension. The damping is perfect for our crummy Midwest roads, smoothing out all bumps, pot holes and cement pavement expansion joints. This feels well controlled and luxurious in every on-road situation.
Handling is decent for a big ute. The steering isn’t crisp, but effort is mild and the steering seemed more responsive than in previous Highlander tests. This is a pleasant highway cruiser for up to seven adults. As always, it would help if a couple of those weren’t real long in the leg for the back bench seat, but comfort is good.
Braking is fine too with giant disc brakes, an anti-lock system, plus traction and stability control. The Limited rides on big 19-inch tires.
Inside, the leather seats are black with brown trim on portions and sparingly about the dash. The headliner is gray and the feel here is all luxury, with padding in the doors and door pulls. That makes it quiet.
Seats are well contoured, better than in previous Highlanders I’ve driven. Plus there’s a power lumbar and front seat edge adjuster for the driver, and two memory settings for the driver’s seat.
The second row seats are captain’s chairs with armrests that fold up and down, plus these seats are heated. The third row is a split bench that easily folds into the floor to allow more cargo room. Initially the rear seats feel odd, until you realize the headrests fold down into the seat. Fold them up and all is well, although long-legged riders need to occupy seats in the front two rows. Head room is good throughout.
Getting in and out of the second row seats isn’t too tight, and you can either walk between the captain’s seats, or just fold and slide either one forward to enter the back seat. Access is relatively easy.
Behind that third row is the hatch, which allows you to get to the cargo area via a flip-open rear window, or by powering open the full hatch. That’s easy if you press the dash button or hold a button on the key fob. But for folks trying to just push the button under the tailgate’s lip, the hatch sometimes powers up and sometimes seems to forget its electric impulses. Try to open the hatch manually and it fights the effort, being heavy and uncooperative.
In addition to the interior’s luxury look, the dash layout also is stellar and stylish with simple gauges that feature blue rings for easy viewing at night. There’s also a manual (why not power at this price?) tilt/telescope steering wheel with phone, radio, cruise and trip computer controls on the hub. The large touch screen for the radio and navigation is easy to see and use with moderate sized volume and tuning buttons. Sadly, several days into the drive a front driver’s side speaker began to buzz quite noticeably. Prior to that the JBL system sounded fine.
I also like how this dash includes a shelf below the main center stack controls and screen. This runs from the ignition button all the way under the glove box, giving you plenty of places to put cell phone, sunglasses, note pad or other small objects. The console also has two cup holders and a roll-top storage box/armrest that allows easy access to the giant storage box. Overhead the visors slide and there’s an emergency SOS system.
The Princeton, Ind.-built test truck also featured handsome running boards, a $599 option that is needed. The step up into the cab would be pretty big without the boards, especially for drivers less than 5-9 or so.
Now, you may ask, is there no way for a less wealthy buyer to get some of the usefulness of the Highlander at less cost?
Well, yes. The base LE with two-wheel-drive is $30,075 including delivery. It has a 185-horse 2.7-liter 4-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission. Moving up to the 270-horse V6 with AWD pushes the price to $32,840 and is your better choice if you do much hauling or minor towing. That model will tow 2,000 lbs., while the test truck was rated for 3,500 lbs.
How does the V6-powered Highlander compare to the upscale hybrid for fuel economy? The hybrid is rated 27 mpg city and 28 highway, which I pretty well confirmed. While the V6 gas powered model is rated 18 mpg city and 24 highway. The hybrid certainly helps.
Either way, for luxury-minded and monied buyers, the Highlander Limited Platinum is pure, well, platinum.
FAST Stats: 2014 Toyota Highlander Ltd. Platinum hybrid
Hits: Handsome swept back styling, excellent ride, roomy, stylish and quiet inside. Heated and cooled seats, heated steering wheel, blind-spot warning system, panoramic sunroof, easy rear seat access and hybrid system provides good gas mileage for a large ute.
Misses: Power hatch can be tricky, pretty big step-up to get in if no running board and one buzzy radio speaker.
Made in: Princeton, Ind.
Engine: 3.5-liter VVT-i V6 w/Hybrid Synergy Drive, 231 hp
Wheelbase: 109.8 in.
Length: 191.1 in.
Cargo: 77.6 cu.ft.
Tow: 3,500 lbs.
MPG: 27/28 (EPA)
MPG: 28.0 (tested)
Base Price: $49,790
Dealer’s Price: $46,319 (includes delivery)
First aid kit, $29
Carpeted floor & cargo mats, $225
Cargo net, $49
Body side molding, $209
Running boards, $599
Test vehicle: $51,761
Sources: Toyota, http://www.kbb.com