Used 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
- Exceptional balance of performance and fuel economy, attractive cabin, flexible second-row seat design, standard third-row seat.
- Steep price compared to standard Highlander, all-wheel-drive system isn't as robust as most, kids will only fit in that third row.
Edmunds' Expert Review
Combining seven-passenger seating with excellent fuel economy and performance, the 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is a very appealing alternative to conventional crossovers.
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 2011 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 2011 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.
trim levels & features
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.
performance & mpg
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.
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.
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.
Features & Specs
More About This Model
Conventional wisdom tells us hybrid versions of things, like the 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid before us, don't make financial sense. Sure, the good ones use a lot less fuel than their conventional gasoline counterparts, but they cost more to buy, too.
It can take serious time for gas savings to make up the difference. Our spreadsheets tell us that paybacks approaching 10 years are common. Some break-even points push laughingly past 20 years.
Cold calculations are hard to argue with, but conventional wisdom is missing something.
Say you're shopping along the border between minivans and crossover SUVs. That's pretty conventional. After all, they're called crossovers for a reason.
You want a decent-sized third-row seat, if only to carpool kids to school and tote the in-laws to dinner when they visit. You'd take four-wheel drive if you could get it. But minivans are anything but "mini" these days — 200 inches long is the new norm — and only the Toyota Sienna offers all-wheel drive. None are hybrids, which irks you a little.
The 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid has a new 3.5-liter V6 engine and is rated at 28 mpg on the EPA's combined scale. It comes standard with a third-row seat. It has electrically operated 4WD. A Limited grade like ours starts at $43,755.
Conventional wisdom would pit this against its V6 gasoline equivalent, the 2011 Highlander Limited 4WD, which costs some $6,600 less. It consumes fuel at an average pace of 19 mpg. All of this boils down to an iffy hybrid payback time of 7.4 years.
But since you're dithering between a crossover and a minivan, let's bring that AWD Sienna minivan back into the picture. We'll stick with the Limited grade to stay close on equipment. At $40,780, this Sienna starts out $2,975 less than the Highlander Hybrid and has a rated fuel economy of 18 mpg.
Compared to Toyota's minivan, the Highlander Hybrid break-even point approaches the 3-year mark. Savings kick in after that, especially if gas prices rise. If you're prepared to spend minivan money anyway, the 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid starts to make a kind of sense.
Why This Works
This rational case for a hybrid crossover SUV only pencils out because the 2011 Highlander Hybrid has been substantially improved over the last year in certain crucial areas. Yes, we know; the sheet metal is essentially unchanged — this is a midcycle refresh, not an all-new generation. The key point here is that last year's 3.3-liter V6 has been replaced with a stouter 3.5-liter V6.
Because of the hybrid application, this isn't the same 3.5-liter V6 that "normal" Highlanders have had for a few years. This one runs on the Atkinson cycle, a more fuel-efficient variant of the four-stroke cycle. The benefits only exist over a relatively narrow rpm band, but that's cool here because the hybrid continuously variable transmission (CVT) can more or less choose any ratio it needs to keep Mr. Atkinson in his happy place.
Running by itself, this new engine peaks at 231 horsepower — 22 more than the old 3.3-liter. But there are electric motors in play, and they boost peak power to 280 hp — 10 more than the 2010 Highlander Hybrid's net rating. Meanwhile, the non-hybrid 2011 Highlander's non-Atkinson 3.5-liter V6 still makes 270 hp.
As you might expect, more total power makes the 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid quicker. It now scoots to 60 mph in 7.4 seconds (7.1 with 1 foot of rollout as on a drag strip), a half-second speedier than the last one we tested. The quarter-mile tells a similar story, where 15.4 seconds at 91.1 mph represents an improvement of 0.4 second.
Speed is all well and good, but the payoff in the cost equation comes from increased fuel economy. Our 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid delivers this, too, thanks to the new engine and improved efficiencies in the hybrid drive system itself. The 2011 model's EPA city, highway and combined fuel economies are now all tied up at 28 mpg apiece. Last year's 3.3-liter Highlander Hybrid scored 26 mpg combined, with 27 mpg coming from the city and only 25 mpg coming from highway driving.
Cargo Maximization With Three Rows
All 2011 Highlanders, hybrid or otherwise, now come standard with that third-row seat you want. But last year's seat had another problem: It was a one-piece all-or-nothing job when folding time came. Past Highlander owners sighed mightily and drove off in a huff every time they walked out of Costco with odd-shaped cargo.
Not anymore. The new rearmost seat is now split 50/50 down the middle, so four can still ride with one-half of the second and third rows folded for those long items. What's more, handy second- and third-row release levers are found right there in the hatch area.
We've always liked the Highlander's 40/20/40 second row. It reclines, it slides back and forth, and the central "20" section is removable (and stowable onboard) to create a center aisle and separate buckets with fold-down armrests. There are lots of clever ideas in here.
With all rear seats folded flat, maximum cargo space is 94 cubic feet, with 42.3 feet of that available behind the second row. Only 10.3 cubes are available behind the third row, but that jumps to 26.3 when one half is folded, as can now be done as of this year.
Is there as much space as a minivan? No way. But this is still a decent amount to work with. Besides, if you're cross-shopping on the border, you're probably not 100 percent committed to the minivan concept and you're probably OK with this.
Other Sides of Other Coins
With the same tires and suspension underneath, the 2011 Highlander Hybrid drives about the same as before. We observed the same impeccably smooth and quiet ride, reasonable coordination and modest limits as before. As if to underscore the point, it slithers through our slalom at 60.2 mph and pulls 0.77g on our skid pad.
But the electric power steering is overly dead and lifeless. The Highlander Hybrid changes direction when we turn the wheel, but that's the only way to know it's connected to anything because there's precious little sensory feedback through the column. Bring your own pulse because you won't find one here.
As expected, the regenerative braking system emits the same faint keening produced by every other Toyota hybrid. There's nothing wrong — that's just what it sounds like when it's doing its hybrid trick and plowing braking energy back into the battery. In a panic stop, the added contribution of four-wheel disc brakes stops the show in 120 feet from 60 mph — quite respectable for a crossover SUV riding on low-rolling-resistance tires.
The aforementioned four-wheel-drive system isn't true four-wheel drive. The Highlander Hybrid is primarily a front-drive machine; the rear wheels are driven exclusively by another electric motor and there's no driveshaft connected to the transmission. Since the battery pack is small (this isn't a plug-in hybrid, after all), the amount of rear-drive assist is best imagined in tens of seconds, not tens of minutes. There's enough to get going from a slippery intersection — the system engages when and if front-wheel slip is detected — but the rear-drive unit is not built to produce a prolonged boost up a long, slippery hill.
Making Sense of Things
This 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited won over more fans than we expected during its short stay with us. One staffer's wife is already angling to trade her minivan in for one.
And why not? The interior is flexible and comfortable, it finally has a useful third row and interior controls don't get any more logical or easier to use than these. It may not tickle the enthusiast's fancy, but the 2011 Highlander Hybrid is a very well-rounded and well thought-out family crossover that just happens to be a 28-mpg hybrid.
Need the maximum possible cargo space? OK, the 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid may not be for you. Have enough parking space for something 200 inches long? Great. There are plenty of other bigger choices out there. Not interested in the hybrid concept? That's fine — you can save money on the front end of the transaction and drive home happy.
But we know that many of you are wavering between minivans and crossover SUVs. Some of you wish they were more hybrid choices. If you're going into this with a minivan budget but can make do with a little less size and space, the reworked 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid starts to make a good deal of sense.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of this evaluation.
Used 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Overview
The Used 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is offered in the following submodels: . Available styles include Limited 4dr SUV AWD (3.5L 6cyl gas/electric hybrid CVT), and 4dr SUV AWD (3.5L 6cyl gas/electric hybrid CVT).
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