What's New for 2011
For 2011 the Toyota Highlander Hybrid gets new styling updates, a few more standard features, better fuel economy and 10 more horsepower.
If you're like most folks, you probably think that midsize SUVs aren't exactly fuel sippers. And you'd be mostly right. But did you know that there is a seven-passenger, midsize crossover SUV that earns an EPA combined estimate of 28 mpg while also packing 280 horses worth of performance? Well, there is now, and it's the 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Its impressive mileage rating represents a 2-mpg improvement compared to last year's Highlander Hybrid and is about 50 percent better than the 17-19 combined mpg that you'd get in a typical, gas-only midsizer.
Other improvements for the 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid include more power via a larger V6 engine (3.5 liters versus 3.3 liters), more standard features and updated styling. The latter includes a number of features that distinguish it from the non-hybrid Highlander, such as a unique grille and front bumper, color-keyed rocker panels with chrome accents and a light blue tint for the headlights and taillights. This year also brings more standard features for the base trim, including a power driver seat, an upgraded audio system, rear climate control and a standard third-row seat (that thankfully now features a 50/50 split/folding design that allows for greater cargo/passenger flexibility). The Limited trim also gets a few new standard perks in the form of perforated leather seating and tri-zone automatic climate control.
Compared to other hybrid SUVs, the Highlander Hybrid rates just 1 mpg less in combined driving than the much smaller, five-passenger Ford Escape Hybrid, and 7 mpg better than the full-size, truck-based Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid (and its GMC Yukon Hybrid twin) that doesn't offer much more in the way of cargo or passenger space. The Highlander Hybrid is also very quick for a large crossover -- expect a 0-60 mph time in the mid 7-second range.
As far as downsides, there are a few. The third-row seat is really only suited for kids, so if you need to carry more than five adult-sized people on a regular basis, the Tahoe/Yukon hybrids or something like the Ford Flex will be preferable. Then there's the price. Though about $12,000 less than the big GM hybrids, the Hybrid is about $7,000 more than a base Highlander with the V6 and AWD -- it'll take quite a few years to make that all back on fuel savings alone. Lastly, the Highlander Hybrid's AWD system is powered by a separate electric motor, so it's theoretically less capable in snowy conditions than the full-fledged gasoline AWD Highlander.
But all things considered, the 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is easy to recommend to anyone looking to significantly reduce their fuel consumption and carbon footprint without sacrificing true SUV-grade functionality.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
For 2011, the midsize Toyota Highlander Hybrid crossover SUV is offered in two trim levels: base and Limited.
The base model comes fitted with 17-inch alloy wheels, automatic headlights, foglamps, keyless ignition/entry, cloth upholstery, an eight-way power driver seat, a 40/20/40 split-folding/sliding/reclining second-row seat with removable center seat, a 50/50 split-folding third-row seat, cargo area-mounted releases for folding down the second-row seats, a tilt-and-telescoping steering column, air-conditioning (with rear climate control), a rearview camera and a six-speaker audio system with CD/MP3 player, satellite radio, an iPod/USB interface and Bluetooth connectivity/streaming audio.
Spring for the Highlander Hybrid Limited and you get 19-inch alloy wheels, a roof rack, additional chrome exterior trim, power-folding/heated outside mirrors (with puddle lamps), a power liftgate (with a flip-up rear window), a sunroof, keyless ignition/entry, perforated leather upholstery, power-adjustable heated front seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel (with audio and climate controls), tri-zone automatic climate control, a rear cargo area cover, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and wood-grain cabin accents.
Options for the base Highlander Hybrid include 19-inch alloy wheels, a power liftgate, an upgraded JBL sound system (with six-CD changer and subwoofer), a navigation system (includes the JBL sound system but with a four-CD changer), a rear seat DVD entertainment system, a Cold Weather package (heated sideview mirrors and windshield wiper de-icer) and a Leather package (includes the leather upholstery, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, heated front seats, the sunroof and the auto-dimming rearview mirror).
The Limited can be had with the JBL sound system, the navigation system and the rear seat DVD entertainment system.
Powertrains and Performance
Powering the 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is a hybrid system consisting of a 3.5-liter V6 gasoline engine and a trio of electric motors. It all adds up to a healthy 280 hp, which is transferred to the pavement via a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) and an all-wheel-drive system that uses a separate electric motor to power the rear wheels when there's a need for extra traction or acceleration.
In Edmunds performance testing, the updated Highlander Hybrid went from zero to 60 mph in 7.4 seconds, which is pretty quick even by conventional crossover standards. Properly equipped, the Highlander Hybrid can also tow trailers up to 3,500 pounds.
This muscle is even more impressive considering its EPA fuel economy estimates of 28 mpg city/28 mpg highway and 28 mpg in combined driving.
The 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid comes standard with antilock disc brakes, stability control, front side airbags, active front-seat head restraints, a driver knee airbag and full-length side curtain airbags. Also standard is a hill-start assist feature that keeps the vehicle from rolling backward when starting off on a steep incline. In Edmunds brake testing, the Highlander Hybrid came to a stop from 60 mph in a tidy 120 feet.
In government crash testing, the Highlander Hybrid received a perfect five stars for driver protection and four stars for front passenger protection in frontal impacts. Side-impact testing yielded five-star ratings front and back. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the conventional Highlander its top "Good" ratings in both frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests.
Interior Design and Special Features
While the 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid's powertrain gets most of the attention, the cabin deserves its fair share of praise. In addition to seating up to seven passengers, the interior features quality materials and a user-friendly control layout. The 40/20/40-split second-row seat slides fore and aft and features reclining seatbacks. It also incorporates a removable center section that can be replaced with a handy center table or stowed away to permit minivan-like walk-through access to the third row.
The optional third-row seat is cramped compared to those of some larger crossovers, but it's useful for kids, and adults of shorter stature can squeeze back there for short trips. For 2011, it's split 50/50 to offer additional flexibility when carrying a mix of people and cargo.
For hauling purposes, the Highlander Hybrid offers a maximum of 94 cubic feet of cargo room with the second- and third-row seats folded. There's a healthy 42 cubic feet of stowage behind the second-row seatbacks.
The 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid features a smooth ride and secure if uninspiring handling. Road noise is nicely suppressed, and engine noise is reduced to a barely perceptible electric hum when the gas engine shuts off. The hybrid powertrain's lively performance and seamless transition between gas and electric modes adds spice and character as well as efficiency. A driver-selectable "EV" mode can propel the Highlander for short distances at low speeds on battery power alone, and hitting the "Econ" button softens throttle response to improve fuel economy.