2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited Premium review: All new but the hybrid part

2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Well, there’s the all-new 2014 Toyota Highlander.  And then there’s the all-new Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Except that Highlander Hybrid really isn’t really all new.

Although the Highlander Hybrid gets the new body and chassis of the next generation, with the new look inside and out and all the trim changes the gasoline-fueled Highlanders also receive—see our first drive review of the 2014 Highlander here—the hybrid powertrain of the 2013 Highlander Hybrid moves over unmolested.

It hasn’t changed, in fact, since the 2011 Highlander Hybrid update. At least that’s what the numbers say. The 2014 Highlander, as we’ve already noted, comes with conventional four-cylinder and V-6 versions with front and all-wheel drive. And to be honest, these aren’t new for 2014 either.

2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid monitor

The 2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid monitor display of power flow and recharging has improved graphics. (click to enlarge)

The Highlander, however, has its own version of Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive, with 3.5-liter V-6 engine and three electric motors/regenerators. One of the motors is just for starting—which it must do repeatedly in stop-and-go traffic with auto stop-start—and another for driving the front wheels. The third electric motor is rear-mounted and used solely for driving the rear wheels, giving the Highlander Hybrid true hybrid all-wheel drive. The gas engine is a high-torque Atkinson-cycle engine rated at 231 horsepower and 215 lb-ft of torque.

The gas engine output of the hybrid compares to the 270 horsepoewr and 248 lb-ft of torque of the regular Highlander V-6, but of course the hybrid has two electric motors to add to its overall power rating, the front motor rated at 167 hp and the rear at 68 horses. An electric motor max torque is as zero rpm, however, so the power peak isn’t additive but rather occurring at different points  in the gas engine’s rev range. That’s good from a broad-spread-of-power standpoint but the numbers only add up to maximum combined rating of 280 horses.

The 2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid motor has an electronically-controlled continuously variable transmission—epicyclic, not belt—for the gas engine and that’s evident the first time the gas pedal hits the floor. Like all CVT-equipped vehicles, the Hybrid’s motor goes to high revs and hold as the Highlander accelerates to catch up. Traditionalists, as they will with any CTV, will find it odd and perhaps annoying, but it is what it is. In typical driving, the engine/transmission/electric motor combo is unobtrusive, and in fact silent.

Toyota doesn’t claim any changes in the Hybrid Synergy Drive system, but we’ve noticed earlier Toyota hybrids wouldn’t stay in all-electric mode unless the lightest touch on the accelerator was used. And we’re talking acceleration slow enough to earn a single finger salute from other drivers. A more normal driving style, however, would start up the gas engine almost immediately.

Something’s changed with the 2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, however. Typical driving didn’t kick the motor on until the gas pedal is pushed harder or higher speeds are achieved. Perhaps some tricks learned from the Prius Plugin Hybrid that can drive at highway speeds under electric power alone. But whatever, it stays in full-electric mode longer than before.

2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid fuel use monitor

The 2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid fuel use monitor has several displays of fuel usage; with our brief drive, we weren’t responsible these results. (click to enlarge)

The 2014 Highlander Hybrid, however, carries on with one hybrid bugaboo, not exclusive to hybrids from Toyota. The hybrid’s regenerative braking system—the electric motor being used as a generator to recharge the batteries and hence also adding to the braking—ends right before the vehicle comes to a complete stop. As it does there’s a momentary surge as total braking decreases, thanks to the motor braking going away, and the vehicle is using only the regular service brakes. It’s very brief but it makes that perfectly smooth stop difficult. According to a Toyota rep we spoke with, it is what it is.

Our first drive in the 2014 Toyota Hybrid was strictly urban and too short to draw any significant conclusions about fuel mileage, but the official EPA rating is 27/28/28 miles per gallon, for city/highway/combined. The previous generation’s alledgely identical drivetrain was rated at 28/28/28 mpg respectively. The explanation from the Toyota tech gurus is that “the extra 99 lbs. in the new Highlander is partly due to its slightly larger dimensions and partly due to the use of more, higher tensile strength steel to do better in the new IIHS small-offset crash test.  That caused a fuel economy change of well less than one mpg, but pushed us over the edge when rounding off to whole mpg numbers in the City rating.”

An oddity is the difference between the 2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid and the 2014 Lexus RX 450h, the mid-size hybrid from Toyota’s premium brand. Both have Atkinson-cycle 3.5-liter engines with the same bore and stroke, and while both have a 12.5:1 compression ratio, the 450h is rated at 245 horsepower—compared to the Highlander Hybrid’s 231 hp—the 450h has a 116 kW front motor compared the Highlander Hybrid’s 123 kW, and at the rear, the Lexus’ all-wheel drive-optional motor is 50 kW against the Toyota’s 68 kW. The Lexus combo nets better fuel economy, however, at 30/28/29 mpg city/highway/combined. And it requires premium rather than the Toyota’s regular fuel. Go figure. No word from the gurus on that anomaly.

2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid (click to enlarge)

Other than the mechanical and operational details, the 2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is offered only in the top two lrim levels of the Highlander line. If you’re going to play, you have to pay.

Speaking of paying, the Highlander Hybrid carries a premium over the gas motor. The Highlander Hybrid is available only in Limited trim or Limited with the Premium package, priced at $48,165 and $51,045, destination included. The similarly equipped gas-powered Highlander Limited and Limited/Premium are priced at $40,895 and $44,845 respectively, again with destination included. The standard refrain about hybrids is that it will take a long time to repay the price premium. The same applies here. It isn’t cheap being green, at least in this case.

And if the 2014 Toyota Highlander is all new—its engines are carryover as well—so is the 2014  Highlander Hybrid. It’s just greener.

Specification and price next page.