Toyota has taken a big share of the SUV market in the United States dating all the way back to the original “camper shell on a pickup” 4Runner of the late 1980’s. Before that there were Land Cruisers, of course, but that semi-civilized 4Runner was the nascence of Toyota’s future SUV lineup which in time would revolutionize the auto industry.
Most obviously there is the RAV4, which launched the entire “cute-ute” market that is now populated by the likes of the Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, VW Tiguan, Chevy Traverse, Ford Escape and many, many more. If ever there was an SUV that created a new genre, the RAV4 is that model.
The Sequoia, which supersized a bit too far with the most recent redesign, was truly groundbreaking when originally released as it was the first assault on a market segment the Big Three had owned for decades. The 4Runner may have stayed a niche, truck based SUV but that never really seemed to hurt sales all that much.
But in the middle of all this lies the unassuming, ubiquitous, car-like and hugely capable Toyota Highlander. In fact, Toyota has been so successful with the Highlander that over 1 million have been sold in the United States alone. That’s a whole lot of weekend trips to Costco. Truly, the Toyota Highlander was purpose built to tackle the wilds of suburbia.
When designing the first Highlander SUV I imagine Toyota realized that most people never took their SUV off-road so they focused on adding refinement and car-like luxury instead. SUVs serve the same purpose station wagons did in the 1950’s and Toyota designed what was, in essence, a macho looking Camry wagon with an elevated ride height.
That’s where the story would end if this was General Motors we were talking about. No, Toyota has constantly fiddled with the Highlander SUV over the course of two generations. There has been an avalanche of new features/options added to this model over the years that were unheard of when it was first launched.
These include features like a back-up camera, in-dash navigation, a third row of seats and even a gas/electric hybrid powertrain option. In fact, the 2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid model I just tested ticked all of those option boxes and many more. I also learned that there is something known as a “sport hybrid.” Wait, isn’t “sport hybrid” a contradiction in terms? (Read on to Driving Impressions to find out more…)
If you are one of the 5 people in this country who think Toyota’s success has ruined America, do keep in mind that 2010 Toyota Highlanders are assembled in Indiana and their V6 engines come from West Virginia. Toyota currently produces 12 models in the United States and it spends approximately $25 billion each year via purchasing from U.S. owned auto part suppliers.
You also might just want to look into where your Chevy SUV is built because you might be surprised to learn that either a French Canadian or Mexican autoworker assembled it. You see, “Made in the USA” doesn’t always mean “Made in the USA.” Just my two cents.
Many may think the 2010 Toyota Highlander is bland looking and that it reeks of the unimaginatively low standards of the bourgeoisie class in this country. Okay, maybe only snobs think that and they can go buy a Lexus RX hybrid if they want a bit more style. I think the Highlander’s inherent simplicity is kind of refreshing. Nowadays SUVs are all visual flash usually at the expense of interior utility.
The 2010 Highlander Hybrid’s looks are simple and straight forward much like an argyle sweater or khaki pants. Just look at the clothing analogy this way: khaki pants and argyle sweaters might have their detractors in this country but just like the Highlander you can wear them/use them pretty much anywhere or in any situation.
Interior Design and Utility
My favorite aspect of my 2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid’s interior was the oversize nature of the audio/climate control knobs on the dash. Why does Toyota understand how to make a highly used knob large, pleasing to the touch and easy to use but no Big Three automaker does? Aren’t American’s hands generally larger? Again, just my two cents.
The dashboard design couldn’t be more straightforward and all of the buttons match the knobs in that they are overly large and clearly marked. The optional 9-speaker JBL audio system delivered excellent sound quality but considering the fact that it is part of a $2,775 option package, it should come with a USB port so you can hook up your iPod.
The dashboard is very nicely finished with high quality plastics that look designed for years of familial abuse. In an interesting and slightly minivan-esque twist, the center bench seat has a removable center section that turns the outer edges of the bench into two separate captain’s chairs. That is perfect for two siblings who just can’t sit that close to each other.
While the gray leather in my tester looked decidedly durable, it did not give the interior a very luxurious ambience. I was also not a big fan of the clashing wood trim choice that was clearly meant for a beige or black interior. I hate to say this but Audi would never make such a wood trim fashion faux-pas. Yes, I am picky like that.
Perhaps all of this is the fault of the drab, battleship gray hue Toyota unfortunately selected for the leather, headliner and much of the plastic trim in my tester. The color is characterless and easy to get dirty—not an ideal combination. Why not just get the beige leather option instead?
One other interior issue I wonder about is why Highlander Hybrid buyers aren’t allowed to pick the smart looking black leather interior option? If it is because black absorbs more heat and isn’t therefore as “environmentally friendly” as gray or beige then I just might have to find Al Gore and strangle him. Seriously, that is the concept of Global Warming taken a step too far.
(Note: Black leather trim is only available on 3.5 liter V6 gas powered Highlander Limited models in Blizzard Pearl—aka: white. Why limit the availability to one model line with one exterior color? You’d have to ask Toyota that question.)
Features, Pricing and Fuel Economy
Let’s start with the 2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid’s impressive fuel economy ratings of 27 highway/25 city according to the EPA. I averaged 24.3 miles per gallon during my time with the Highlander and that is mighty impressive when you consider the fact that all Hybrid variants come with standard all-wheel drive and weigh over 4,600 pounds.
Every Highlander Hybrid comes equipped with all-wheel drive because one of the electric motors drives the rear wheels through the rear axle all by itself. That pays dividends in inclement weather and seems to improve the handling of this SUV to a surprising degree. (But more on that in the Driving Impressions section…)
The one thing that really affects the appeal of the 2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid (and my top of the line Limited edition variant) is the sticker price. Highlander Hybrid Limited models start at $41,020 and my tester topped out at $48,880 including destination. It will take you a long time to save enough on gas to make the price differential between the gas powered V6 and the hybrid even itself out.
Granted, my test model came with every gadget and gizmo you could want including dual zone climate control, navigation, a back-up camera, power everything, a moonroof, leather, rear seat DVD entertainment, a 9-speaker JBL audio system, Bluetooth and much more than I could ever list here.
The only glaring omission (on 2010 models at least) is the lack of USB/iPod connectivity. I realize I may not fit the target demographic for the Highlander Hybrid as I am single with no kids but I know plenty of moms and dads who require driving music. And they don’t carry CDs.
After carefully studying the Toyota website I gathered that a fully loaded Highlander Limited 3.5 liter V6 4wd tops out at around $41,000. So the cost differential for a similarly loaded Highlander Hybrid Limited would amount to almost $7,000. The one trump card that the Highlander Hybrid has, however, is the deliciously intoxicating thrust afforded to the driver by the very powerful electric motors. Read on to find out more…
The 3.3 liter gas powered V6 engine really doesn’t pump out all that much get up and go with readings of 208 horsepower and 212 lb. feet of torque. Solace can be taken from the fact that the gas motor makes an aurally pleasing growl when pushed and you will never experience any untoward engine vibrations reverberating through the cabin.
No, the thing that turns this Clark Kent-like family SUV into a warp speed capable, Superman-like drag strip racer is the hugely powerful electrical system. Not that I fully grasp the power readings you get from electric vehicles but apparently the maximum torque available from the electric motor is 247 lb. feet from idle to 1,500 RPM. Torque, not horsepower, is what makes vehicles feel fast and the Highlander Hybrid has it in ridiculous amounts.
The electric motors drive both the axles only as needed so the all-wheel drive system (called i-AWD) is not a full-time system like you find in gas powered Highlanders. Highlander Hybrids are not intended for off-road use but having all-wheel drive in bad weather can be a godsend.
The 2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid feels so fast that it just might remind you of your old classic, 1960’s era muscle car. Why, you ask? Because the 2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid has about as much steering feel as one of those “fast in a straight line” road racers.
I know from firsthand experience that Toyota can work steering rack miracles after my time behind the wheel of the 2011Sienna SE. If they can make a gigantic 8-passenger minivan fun to drive then I am sure they can do the same to a Highlander. It would only be fitting considering this is a “sport hybrid.”
At least I can attest that the Highlander Hybrid, unlike old muscle cars, comes with a strong regenerative braking system. And unlike some other hybrids, the Highlander’s regenerative braking system takes no getting used to as it never feels abrupt or grabby.
Despite the number than Courtney Love on a Tuesday steering feel, the 2010 Toyota Highlander is a really enjoyable SUV to drive. The limits of cornering adhesion are surprisingly high and better steering would make them easier to access.
Body roll is minimal for an SUV and I think the Highlander cornered better than the Camry Hybrid I tested earlier. Despite all of this the ride remains pillow-like when gently crossing speed bumps or the severely potholed local supermarket parking lot.
Now on to the most miraculous part of the 2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid driving experience. I actually really liked the CVT automatic transmission! I think CVT autos tend to make odd noises and exacerbate the feeling that you are driving an underpowered car.
But since the Highlander Hybrid is seriously overpowered, I was free to enjoy the CVT’s ability to access the hugely elastic nature of the gas/electric powerband. You see, when the 6-cylinder gas motor loses power the electric motors seamlessly push their way to the forefront via the gearless CVT auto. The Highlander’s CVT is simply the best I have ever tested.
How Dog and Kid Friendly is It?
The 2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid has seating for 7 (5 adults/two kids or two dogs), has an overhead console mounted rear “conversation mirror” that allows for parental supervision of those in back and it has a huge, easy to load cargo area which measures 42.4 cubic feet when the third row is folded flat.
With the second row folded flat the 2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid offers a family swallowing 94.1 cubic feet. No, seriously, your family could move in. It’s that huge and big enough for 90% of families. Really, you don’t need a Suburban for your two kids and the dog.
Sometimes when I am told about an upcoming vehicle I will be testing, I get these preconceived notions in my head as to whether or not I will like my time driving it. I know admitting that prejudicial bent makes me a bad journalist but take heart knowing that my “gut feelings” are wrong 95% of the time.
I am ashamed to say I wasn’t exactly jazzed about the thought of driving the 2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, I have to say this is the most fun I have ever had driving a hybrid vehicle. The instantaneous power delivery is truly addicting. I also won’t forget to mention the small fact that this is the first time I actually enjoyed the uniquely elastic behavior of a CVT automatic transmission.
If Toyota would just give the steering a little bit (okay a lot) more feel, the 2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid might just start a whole other SUV genre—the hybrid SPORT utility. The 2010 Toyota Highlander is proof that miracles do exist and that they often times come wrapped in the most unassuming of packages. See, your mom was right.
Vehicle Tested: 2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited
Hybrid Model Base Price: $41,020
Price as Tested: $48,880 (including destination)
Options on Test Model: Rear Seat DVD Entertainment–$1,780, Highlander Hybrid Extra Value Package–$2,010: (includes dual zone climate control, rear seat air conditioning, power moonroof), Navigation Package–$2,775: (includes JBL audio with 9 speakers, XM, hands free Bluetooth, voice/touch activated navigation system).
Engine: 3.3 liter V6 Gas/Electric
Gas Motor: 208 horsepower/212 lb. feet of torque
Electric Motor: 123 kW/167 lb. feet of torque
Transmission: CVT automatic
0-60: 6.8 seconds
Fuel Economy: 27 city/24 highway
Economy as Tested: 24.3 miles per gallon
Fuel Tank Size: 17.2 gallons
Runs on: Regular Unleaded
Tow Rating: 3.500 pounds
Cargo Compartment (behind third row): 10.3 cubic feet
(behind second row): 42.4 cubic feet
(behind first row of seats): 94.1 cubic feet
Crash Test Rating (NHTSA): (front driver—5 stars, front passenger—4 stars)
Side Impact: (front seat—5 stars, rear seat—5 stars)
Rollover Protection: 4 stars
Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles bumper to bumper
5 years/60,000 miles powertrain
2 years/25,000 miles free maintenance
Vehicle Built in: Princeton, Indiana
Vehicle Provided by: Toyota Motor Corporation