For 2017, the regular Highlander gets a new power-train and styling tweaks; the hybrid model gets the updated engine and fresh face, but its transmission carries over from 2016. The big news is that the hybrid is now available in LE and XLE trim levels, rounding out a lineup previously made up of the top Limited and Platinum trims only. All have all-wheel drive standard
Exterior & Styling
It looks like Toyota is pulling a page from Lexus’ stylebook with the Highlander’s 2017 update. Both the hybrid and regular model now wear a large, plunging grille, but its look here is less hourglass, more pout than on Lexus’ SUVs. Hybrid models get subtle badging but otherwise blend in with the rest of the lineup. Two new exterior colors join the Hybrid lineup for 2017: Celestial Silver Metallic and Toasted Walnut Pearl.
How It Drives
The hybrid variant is the most powerful Highlander; it overcomes both the pokiness of the heavy, AWD non-hybrid model and the squirreliness of the two-wheel-drive model, which can get a little wily when too much power is routed to the front wheels. The hybrid gets power from the regular Highlander’s new direct-injected, 3.5-liter V-6 but adds batteries, two electric motors up front and a third for the rear wheels, amounting to total output of 306 horsepower. Low-speed acceleration is surprisingly brisk, and passing power is strong.
The drivetrain’s continuously variable properties, similar to a continuously variable automatic transmission, results in some engine drone, but it’s not enough to be intrusive. In fact, I found the hybrid model to be much quieter overall than the traditional Highlander, with better isolation from engine harshness and road noise.
Around town, the hybrid can cruise at low speeds solely on electric power, and I found it easy to sustain EV mode in city driving. The transition from EV to gas is impressively seamless. In EV mode, the car gives off a subtle, futuristic whir. Another hybrid component, the regenerative brakes, are also well done; they’re responsive and have a more natural pedal feel than many other hybrids.
The Highlander’s highway road manners are comfortable, with a firm but not harsh ride and adequate bump absorption. Handling is a weak point, however, with light, dull steering and lots of body roll.
The Highlander Hybrid comes only with AWD and gets an EPA-estimated 30/28/29 mpg city/highway/combined in LE guise and 29/27/28 mpg in other trims. That’s slightly more efficient than last year’s hybrid and beats the gas-only V-6 AWD version by up to 7 mpg combined. It likewise cleans up compared with other three-row SUVs; base AWD versions of the Pilot (18/26/21), Santa Fe (18/24/20) and Explorer (16/22/18) all do worse.
My test version was a top-of-the-line Limited Platinum, and the cabin finishes were appropriately upscale. That trim’s plush standard leather seats and convincing matte, woodlike panels and chrome trim gave the interior a Lexus-like look and feel.
Where the Hybrid previously maxed out at seven seats, it now joins the regular Highlander in offering seats for seven or eight with captain’s chairs or a second-row bench, respectively. My model had the captain’s chairs, and they’re separated by a handy pop-up cupholder and console tray. The cabin is full of thoughtful features, such as a heated steering wheel and a conversation mirror above the rearview mirror that makes the rear seats visible to the driver. There are also pop-up sunshades in the second row. They’re small touches, but they make the cabin more comfortable.
Though it technically has three seats, not even one adult can get comfortable in the third row without some uncomfortable contortions.
Second-row headroom and legroom are plentiful, so even adults can stretch, but the third row is punishing. Getting back there is pretty easy: The second-row seats collapse and slide forward in one motion, opening a decent-sized walkway to the third row. Kids should also be able to fit between the bucket seats for third-row access. Sitting back there, however, is tough. Though it technically has three seats, not even one adult can get comfortable without some contortions. The seat is firm and flat, and it’s one of the smallest third rows in the segment.
Cargo & Storage
The Highlander Hybrid passed my family’s junk test with flying colors. Its center console is wide, deep and multitiered for better stuff-management. A favorite feature is the small shelf that runs the length of the dash, which is great for storing a phone or, in my case, snacks. The 2017 model is even more useful with the addition of two more USB ports up front for device charging.
The cargo area, however, disappoints. Behind the third row, the Highlander has just 13.8 cubic feet of space. That nearly matches the Santa Fe (13.5) but is bested by the Pilot (16.5) and Explorer (21.0). Folding the third row is easy, and doing so opens up 42.3 cubic feet of space. That’s more than the Santa Fe but still trails the others. With both rows down, maximum cargo room is mid-pack. The regular Highlander has the same amount of cargo space as the Hybrid.
Two cargo-area features stand out: There’s a shallow underfloor storage bin that’s convenient for organizing small items, and the independently opening rear window is handy for stowing small items quickly, gaining access in tight quarters and preventing cargo from spilling out as it might when you open the full liftgate.
Ergonomics & Electronics
The control setup is not pretty — screens, touchpads, buttons and dials crowd the panel — but the system is easy to use once you cut through the visual clutter. The climate and audio controls are straightforward. It was simple to use the audio preset menu and input a destination into the navigation system.
Entune Premium Audio with Navigation and App Suite is standard on Hybrid models. Its 8-inch touchscreen is clear and large, and apps like Pandora internet radio integrated seamlessly with my Android phone. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are unavailable.
One oddity to note: The available Easy Speak system is a strange gimmick. It transmits your (possibly stern) voice to the rear speakers, helping get your point across to your (possibly misbehaving) kids in back. The system worked but required a deep dive into several menus and occasionally produced ear-assaulting microphone feedback.
The 2017 Highlander earned top safety scores from both the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Included in the institute’s mid-size SUV class with the Highlander, the Pilot and Santa Fe also earned IIHS’ top score, but the Explorer did not fare as well.
New safety features join the Highlander Hybrid this year. Standard across all trim levels is Toyota Safety Sense P, a package including forward collision warning with pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning with steering assist, automatic high beams and adaptive cruise control. A backup camera is standard and a new 360-degree camera system is optional. The camera is ideal for low-speed parking maneuvers and features a trailer view for towing.
In our Car Seat Check, we had no trouble installing two child-safety seats in the second row; they installed with ease and had ample room. There are no Latch anchors in the third row and only one top tether anchor.
Value in Its Class
The Highlander Hybrid’s pleasant road manners, comfortable cabin and standout fuel economy impress, but be ready to pay extra for all that with this model. The base Highlander Hybrid starts at $37,230 (including destination), a little more than $2,000 higher than the least expensive V-6, AWD non-hybrid Highlander. Competitors’ base AWD versions, however, start around $3,000-$4,000 less. It’s going to take a lot of trips to the pump to make up that price premium in this climate of historically cheap gas.