2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid 4WD-i

Review and photos by
Grant Yoxon, Autos.ca

If you’re not concerned about the recent rise in fuel prices, you must have money to burn.

2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

I filled up yesterday (first week of May in Ottawa) at $1.34/litre for regular fuel. Our weekly fuel bill for two vehicles has gone from about $85.00 at this time last year to $125.00. It is money that I would prefer not to burn.

Needless to say, I’m a little cautious these days with my right foot. With two perfectly good vehicles, we’re not about to trade in for better fuel efficiency. So we practice more fuel efficient driving (see Paul Williams’ article, Tips on driving “fuel-efficiently” to get the most from a tank of fuel.

But if you are looking for a new vehicle, you have two choices, really – buy smaller, or buy more efficient. The former will always be the better, lowest cost choice, but not everyone has that choice. Families with three or more children may find that a compact car or SUV has just too many compromises to be viable.

Safety features are the same across the board, with Toyota’s Start Safety System – stability control, traction control, anti-lock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist, smart stop technology, dual stage driver and passenger front airbags, front seat side mounted airbags, driver knee airbag, roll-sensing front and rear head and side curtain airbags and driver knee airbag are all standard, as are active headrests with whiplash protection, three point lap and shoulder seat belts in all seating positions, child seat anchors and child protector rear door locks.With its seven passenger seating capability, roomy rear seat and flexible storage, the Toyota Highlander has the right combination of size and seating for the larger family; and with three powertrain options and a variety of equipment levels, it is available in a price to suit most budgets – from $31,500 for the front-wheel drive, four-cylinder Highlander to the $51,650 four-wheel drive, six-cylinder, gas/electric hybrid Highlander Hybrid Limited.

Hybrid models – such as our test vehicle – also get Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM), a feature normally found only in more expensive Lexus models. VDIM provides more precise control of the electric power steering, stability control, ABS, brake assist, electronic brake-force distribution and engine torque to manage vehicle stability.

Drivetrain options include the entry-level 2.7-litre, four-cylinder, producing 187 hp and 186 lb.-ft. of torque. Towing capacity is rated at 1,587 kg (3,500 lbs). It is available with front-wheel drive and basic equipment levels only. But with a combined city/highway Energuide fuel consumption rating of 9.0 L/100 km, it is a viable option for the fuel consumption conscious owner.Depending on your need for luxury, you can get a Highlander equipped with cloth or leather seating, manual or automatic climate control, manual or power operated front seats, and metallic look or wood grain trim. Items such as cruise control, power windows and door locks, keyless entry, fog lamps, variable intermittent wipers with windshield wiper de-icer, heated side mirrors, roof rails, automatic headlights and alloy wheels are all standard. Spend the money and you can order such features as steering wheel mounted audio and climate controls, power rear hatch, power sun roof, back-up camera, navigation system, premium audio system, Bluetooth connectivity and larger alloy wheels.

V6 models are combined with four-wheel drive and can be equipped from basic to opulent. The 3.5-litre V6 engine produces 270 hp and 248 lb.-ft of torque and has an Energuide rating of 10.9 L/100 km for combined city/highway driving.

Our test vehicle, the 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid 4WD-i falls right in the middle of the Highlander price range at $42,850 and is equipped with the third drive-train option, the gasoline/electric Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive.

The Highlander Hybrid combines a gasoline engine with a high-speed electric motor. The front wheels are driven by the gasoline engine and an electric motor. Power from the gasoline engine and electric-drive motor is distributed to the drive wheels via an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission. There is also an engine-driven generator and a rear electric motor that can charge the battery pack, which in turn provides power to the electric motors as needed. The generator motor also acts as a starter motor for the gasoline engine. The Highlander Hybrid does not need to be plugged in. Electricity is generated by the gasoline engine and stored in a battery pack located under the rear seat.

For 2011, the Highlander Hybrid receives a new, more powerful, 3.5-litre gasoline engine. Net system horsepower – the power of both the gasoline engine and electric motor combined – is 280, up 10 hp from 2010. Torque drops slightly, 2 lb.-ft., to 210 lb.-ft. A new exhaust gas recirculation system improves efficiency, while a cooled exhaust heat recovery system improves cold-weather performance.

Energuide rates the Highlander Hybrid at 6.6 L/100 km in the city and 7.3 L/100 km on the highway – the hybrid achieves its best fuel consumption in the stop and go of city driving – and a combined rating of 6.9 L/100 km. However, during a week of driving, the best I could achieve was 9.4 L/100 km. Canadian government fuel consumption testing generally underestimates fuel consumption and the methods employed give more optimistic estimates for hybrids than other vehicles.While the V6 gasoline powered Highlander has a full-time four-wheel drive system in which the gasoline engine drives both the front and rear wheels and divides torque between the front and rear axles depending on driving conditions, the gasoline engine and an electric motor in the Hybrid drive only the front wheels. If front-wheel slip is detected, a dedicated rear electric motor provides power to the rear wheels for additional traction.

One shouldn’t compare one vehicle’s real world result to another vehicle’s Energuide estimate – Energuide will always win. But it should be noted that the fuel consumption with this Highlander Hybrid was as good or better than I recorded with any of the compact, four-cylinder SUVs I’ve tested in the past year.

This is a seven-passenger SUV, weighing in at 2,105 kg (4,641 lbs.). It has the power of a large V6, but uses fuel like a four-cylinder. It brightens your day when you pull up the gas pump for a weekly fill-up.

And it does have power. While the accelerator is set up for a leisurely step in, a fuel saver in normal traffic, pressing down hard brings the 3.5-litre and electric motor to action, making passing and merging a breeze.

At slower speeds, the Highlander Hybrid is perfectly quiet and the transition from electric power to hybrid power and back again is nearly transparent. While older hybrids would not switch to electric-only power above speeds of about 30 km/h, the 2011 Highlander Hybrid will switch at speeds as high as 70 km/h and if decelerating will shut the engine off at speeds over 80 km/h.

As well, older hybrid models were noted for having “sticky” brakes. Brakes on hybrids are used to regenerate electricity and tended to grip hard, particularly near a full stop. The brakes on the 2011 Highlander Hybrid felt no different than in any other non-hybrid vehicle.

For 2011, the Toyota Highlander and Highlander Hybrid received a mid-term facelift and improved standard and optional equipment. Changes include a standard 50/50 split third row bench seat in all models, rear-heating and ventilation controls, and Bluetooth connectivity and XM satellite radio on all but the base 2.7-litre model.

Standard features on our base hybrid model include a power eight-way adjustable driver’s seat, premium cloth seats, tilt and telescopic steering wheel, manual air conditioning and heating, six-speaker AM/FM/MP3/WMA stereo with compact disc, auxiliary input and USB input, keyless entry, power door locks and windows with driver side auto up and down, cruise control and electrochromic rear view mirror with digital compass.On the outside, the Highlander receives new front fascia, grille, hood, fenders, headlights, rear bumper, rear combination tail lamps, rear spoiler and new aluminum alloy wheels. The Highlander Hybrid can be differentiated by its specific grille and front bumper treatment, and hybrid emblems.

Standard Optitron gauges include a kilowatt power meter next to the speedometer and a 3.5-inch display in the centre console which doubles as a trip meter/system operation display and rear-view camera display.

A comfort package can be ordered at additional cost which adds leather, heated front seats, power rear hatch and flip up rear hatch glass and smart key. Further, the Highlander Hybrid Limited adds 10-way adjustable driver’s seat, four-way power passenger seat, tri-zone automatic climate control, wood grain trim, steering wheel-mounted audio and HVAC controls, nine-speaker JBL audio system and navigation system.

Not everyone wants a leather interior and I would be quite happy with the cloth upholstery found in our base hybrid tester. However, I found it odd that a vehicle costing over $42,000 came with manual heating and air conditioning controls when most competitors in this price range are equipped with automatic climate control.

Many will argue that you can buy a lot of gas for the difference in price between the similarly equipped V6 4WD Highlander ($35,750) and the Highlander Hybrid ($42,850). But in Canada, there are no other mid-size hybrid SUVs that can be purchased as cheaply as the Toyota Highlander Hybrid. While some people may feel that improved fuel economy is hardly worth the additional cost, there are many who feel that the Highlander Hybrid offers them an opportunity to reduce their carbon footprint while still meeting their needs for passenger and cargo carrying capacity.

Pricing: 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Base price: $42,850

Options: None

A/C tax: $100

Freight: $1,560

Price as tested: $44,510


Buyer’s Guide: 2011 Toyota Highlander

Crash test results

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)

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