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.