Full 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Review
What's New for 2009
After a complete redesign last year, the 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid remains unchanged.
There's no denying that most hybrid passenger cars save on fuel costs. A side benefit is the feeling that you're helping to reduce our oil dependence and pollution output. But hybrid SUVs are more of a mixed bag. While these vehicles may sport "Hybrid" badges that give their owners the warm green fuzzies, they often offer only marginal environmental improvements over their conventionally powered counterparts.
Such is not the case with the 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, which genuinely boasts the best of both worlds. Although it's a fairly large crossover SUV, the Highlander Hybrid turns in a very respectable 26 mpg in the EPA's combined fuel economy estimate, which is 6-7 mpg better than the conventional V6-powered Highlander. Yet this superior fuel economy doesn't come at the expense of power. The V6 and electric motor combo provides remarkably brisk and seamless acceleration. At the same time, the Highlander offers the same advantages as the regular Highlander, including an attractively designed and versatile cabin with comfortable seating for up to seven passengers.
This all-around excellence helps the Highlander stand out from other competitors, hybrid or otherwise. This isn't to say there aren't drawbacks, however. Even in base form, the Highlander Hybrid is more expensive than the loaded-up Limited variant of the regular Highlander. And although the Highlander is all-wheel drive, we don't think the Hybrid's AWD is as effective as a more traditional AWD setup. Still, for crossover shoppers with environmental leanings looking for a seven-passenger vehicle, Toyota proves there can be only one -- the Highlander Hybrid.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is a midsize crossover SUV that is offered in base and Limited trim levels. The base model seats five passengers and comes standard with 17-inch alloy wheels, an eight-way manually adjustable driver seat, a tilt and telescoping steering wheel with audio controls, air-conditioning, a six-speaker sound system with a CD/MP3 player and an auxiliary audio jack, full power accessories, keyless ignition and entry and a multifunction display with a back-up camera.
The Highlander Limited adds 19-inch alloy wheels, a power rear liftgate, an in-dash six-CD changer, satellite radio, leather seats, heated and power-adjustable front seats, and third-row seating for two more passengers. Many of these features are available as optional add-ons for the base model.
Options for either trim level include dual-zone automatic climate control, rear automatic climate control and a separate rear air-conditioning unit. Further enhancements can be added to the Limited model and include a sunroof, a nine-speaker JBL sound system with Bluetooth, a voice-activated navigation system and a rear-seat entertainment system.
Powertrains and Performance
The 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid's starting point is a 3.3-liter V6 gasoline engine that cranks out 209 horsepower. It's matched to a pair of electric motors, one of which is primarily used as a starter/generator. Peak power for the gasoline-electric combo is a healthy 270 hp, and it's routed to the front wheels through a specialized continuously variable transmission (CVT).
The Hybrid does have an AWD system in which a third electric motor is used to drive the rear wheels when extra traction or torque is needed. However, this setup differs significantly from the 4WD/all-wheel-drive system on the regular Highlander. There's no center differential, and the V6 engine never provides power to the rear wheels. As such, the Hybrid isn't really meant to go off-road, and even buyers shopping for a serious snow vehicle may not find it robust enough to meet their needs.
In our tests, we managed to hustle the Highlander Hybrid to 60 mph in only 7.5 seconds. That's quick for any seven-passenger SUV, regardless of powertrain type. Fuel economy comes in at an EPA-rated 27 mpg city/25 mpg highway and 26 mpg in combined driving. City mileage is slightly higher than highway mileage because the Highlander relies more on the electric motors for propulsion at low speeds.
The 2009 Highlander Hybrid comes standard with antilock disc brakes with brake assist, stability control, traction control, hill start assist, front-seat side airbags, side curtain airbags for all three seating rows, driver knee airbags and a back-up camera.
In government crash testing, the Highlander Hybrid scored a perfect five stars for driver protection in frontal impacts, while front passenger protection garnered four stars. Side-impact protection earned another five stars for both front and rear occupants. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the Highlander Hybrid its highest score of "Good" for frontal-offset and side-impact protection.
Interior Design and Special Features
The 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid's cabin is a pleasant place to be. We're particularly fond of the hideaway center seat in the second row. When you don't have a middle passenger in the second row, this seat stows in the back of the front console, and you can snap down a table with cupholders. Alternatively, you can leave this space open so older kids can access the optional third row without forcing you to move and reinstall any car seats that might be in the second-row outboard positions.
The third-row bench can seat adults in a pinch, but it's certainly not as roomy as some third-row seats in other large crossovers. The Highlander's third row is also a one-piece fixed design, so you can't configure the cargo area for a storage and passenger mix. However, the seat does fold flat into the floor, allowing for 42 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second row. With the second row folded down, the space opens up to a capacious 94 cubes.
The 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid's ride is comfortable and hushed. Handling is competent and sure-footed but certainly not sporty. What is sporty, though, is the acceleration when the gas and electric motors are both laying down the power. In normal driving, the transition from electric to gasoline power is seamless. The Highlander Hybrid also feels relatively maneuverable, especially when compared with the competing Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid.
In the interest of maximizing fuel economy, the driver can select either "EV" or "Econ" driving mode. In EV mode, the vehicle is motivated solely by electric power, but only at very low speeds for short distances. More useful is Econ mode, which restrains throttle response for the benefit of fuel economy. Switch it on in stop-and-go traffic and you'll never miss the extra power.