Arguably the top of the line for '14 Highlander, the Hybrid is also the most efficient and powerful of the trio of engine options offered. For those whose budgets permit the slight price premium over the standard Limited V-6, the Hybrid is the Highlander to get.
The Hybrid is powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 engine that is mated to a trio of electric motors for a combined system output stated at 280 ponies. Two of those electric motors are located under the hood and work in concert with the gasoline engine, providing power and regeneration at low speeds, and handling the stopping and restarting of the gasoline engine as necessary. The front wheels get a blend of power from the gasoline engine and the electric motors via an eCVT. This electronic Continuously Variable Transmission doesn't shift gears like a traditional gearbox because it doesn't have gears. It just holds the engine speed independent of vehicle speed to deliver the maximum torque or efficiency, depending on which is being asked of it at a given time.
The third electric motor is located on the rear axle and drives the rear wheels when additional traction is necessary or provides still more regenerative braking when slowing the Highlander down. So while every Highlander Hybrid features all-wheel drive (AWD-i in Toyota-speak), there is no need for a heavy drive shaft running along the spine of the vehicle -- the batteries and electric motors add enough weight as is.
As is the case with many of its hybrid models, Toyota doesn't bother stating a total torque number, but I'm told that it is significantly higher than the standard V-6 model. The V-6 engine makes 215 pound-feet, the electric motors on the front axle make 247 pound-feet, and the electric motor on the rear axle makes 103 pound-feet, but Toyota is careful to state that figuring total system torque isn't as easy as adding these numbers together.
I was able to find fuel economy estimates of 27 city, 28 highway, and 28 combined mpg, which is quite good for a seven-passenger vehicle. At the end of our week of testing, the Hybrid had averaged 28.5 combined mpg, significantly higher than the 20 combined mpg from the Limited V-6 AWD or the 22 mpg for the 2wd model with the 2.7-liter four-cylinder.
Of course the Hybrid is a bit more expensive than the standard V-6 AWD model, but based on the annual operation costs estimated at fueleconomy.gov, the Hybrid should recoup the difference in price in about five years.
Though it is technically the most powerful, the Hybrid model was noticeably quicker than the purely gasoline-powered V-6 model, but that's not really the point. What drivers will no doubt appreciate is how much more efficient and quiet this Hybrid model is. For those whose budgets permit the slight price premium over the standard Limited V-6, the Hybrid is the Highlander to get.
Everything's an 'app' these days
The Entune infotainment system hides most of its features under a menu called Apps, accessible via a capacitive button located on the left and right edges of the touchscreen's bezel.
Apps include traditional infotainment functions such as navigation, hands-free calling, messaging, traffic, and fuel economy monitoring, as well as actual Entune apps such as Pandora and iHeartRadio Internet radio, MovieTickets.com and OpenTable reservations, and Bing, Facebook Places, and Yelp destination search. Entune apps require that you pair a smartphone running the Entune app for iOS or Android, as your phone provides the data connection for the system.
Other audio sources include USB and iPod connectivity, SiriusXM satellite radio, HD Radio, FM/AM terrestrial radio, and a 3.5 mm analog audio input. Sports scores, stock quotes, and fuel prices provided by SiriusXM round out the "info" part of the infotainment system.
I found it just a bit annoying to have to bounce into this Apps menu and then back out to navigation to go from selecting Pandora stations to viewing the map -- I'd prefer to have a physical Map or Nav shortcut button -- but it's not so frustrating that I couldn't deal. The Entune touchscreen infotainment system was very readily responsive to my taps, so moving around the interface wasn't maddening. That the instrument cluster contains a small LCD that can show the upcoming turn-by-turn direction helps to curb my need to be constantly checking the map.
Aside from the Apps shortcut, the Entune software has a Home screen filled with a customizable combination of widgets, displaying hands-free calling shortcuts, the navigation map, the odd and innovative Driver Easy Speak toggle, the current audio source, and more at a glance. Up to three of these modules can be displayed on the Home screen, which can be set up to either a two-way or three-way split screen.
There are also capacitive buttons leading to the current Audio source and the hands-free calling system.
Driver Easy Speak
Driver Easy Speak picks up the driver's voice using the same microphone in the ceiling console that is used for Bluetooth hands-free calling, then rebroadcasts it throughout the cabin using the car's speakers. Like a sort of built-in PA that allows the driver to communicate with passengers all the way back in the third row without having to turn their head or raise their voice.
There are seven levels of amplification for the Driver Easy Speak feature, which can be selected via the touchscreen. As I stated earlier, the system is activated or deactivated via touchscreen buttons on the home screen and in the app screen. I also noticed that the system slightly lowers the volume of the current audio source when it notices that the driver is speaking.