A new Toyota Highlander Hybrid waiting in the wings, and it will have more power and thriftier with fuel, but before we get to the 2017 model, let’s take one last look at the 2016 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Oh, what the heck, let’s go all the way back.
The 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid was, per Toyota, the “world’s first seven-passenger hybrid gas/electric power SUV.” Actually, we think that “crossover” is the more accurate term, but who’s counting. It was the application of Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive that made it special, and with a 3.3-liter V-6 engine and the system’s electric motors produced a peak 270 horses. Toyota was able to claim the best fuel economy for a mid-size SUV market segment, and qualified for the stringent SULEV—Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle, and we didn’t make that up—emissions rating. Front wheel drive was standard, and all-wheel drive, with an additional electric motor driving the rear wheels, was optional.
Little changed for the 2007 model year in anticipation of the next generation of Highlander in 2008. For the 2008 model year, the Hybrid, like the “normal” Toyota Highlander, was completely new and the Hybrid got the Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management system which, as the name suggests, integrated handling, braking and traction systems, along with the Highlander Hybrid’s electronically-controlled throttle and electronically-controlled braking system. The Highlander Hybrid had begun talking to itself…in a good way.
The engine and electric drive motor were upgraded for 2008 as well, and although the net horsepower remained at 270 horses, overall power was improved and fuel economy got a boost as well. All-wheel drive became standard for 2008 as well.
The 2008 Highlander Hybrid also got a new dashboard unique to the hybrid model, including a new energy monitor where the tachometer had been, and an “EV” switch which allowed the Highlander Hybrid to operate in pure electric mode at low speed for a limited distance. It was great for sneaking up on people in the parking lot, an audio stealth mode. And ECON mode switch was added to change the throttle response to fool drivers into getting better fuel economy.
The next change came for the 2011 model year with a new 3.5-liter V-6 which was carried over through the 2016 model year, despite an all-new Toyota Highlander in 2014. The 3.5-liter gasoline engine was used in the regular Highlanders produced 270 horsepower—Toyota loves that number–and 248 lb-ft of torque, but the hybrid has two electric motors, the front rated at 167 horsepower and the rear at 68 horse. With different torque peaks than the gasoline engine, the electric motors made the torque spread wider on the Hybrid.
Our test 2016 Toyota Highlander Hybrid had the 3.5-liter engine V-6, and because our first drive of the Highlander Hybrid, a 2014 model, was in Florida, we had hoped for snow when we lined up our test drive. Such was not to be, so we can’t report on the low-traction abilities of the semi-electric all-wheel drive. Like other Toyota hybrids, however, we found the Highlander Hybrid reluctant to stay in full electric mode, adding the gas motor at anything more than a featherfoot takeoff. Perhaps a curb weight of almost 5,000 lbs had something to do with that.
The 2016 Highlander Hybrid had extremely acceptable acceleration but with its continually-variable transmission (CVT) the noises from the engine, which at more than part throttle were not subdued, could be goaty if one played the gas pedal right. Move the pedal up and down for a wwooWWOOWWwooowWOOOWwo serenade. However at cruise the powertrain is inaudible and the overall ride pleasant.