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2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid long-term update: Trading sun for snow and slush

Our humble Highlander Hybrid heads to Northeast Ohio for a proper taste of winter.

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Sun or snow, the Highlander's design looks fresh.

Emme Hall/Roadshow

A couple of Roadshow's California-based staffers are originally from the Midwest, so they know just how miserable the cold and snow can be out here. Roadshow's long-term 2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, however, did not -- until now. Yes, the big three-row SUV made the long trek from SoCal to NEO -- that's Northeast Ohio for you non-locals -- a few weeks ago, and the Highlander Hybrid got its first extended taste of a colder sort of life. Welcome to the below-freezing zone.

Snow still blanketed my neck of the woods when the Highlander arrived, and I wheeled the SUV around in the elements to get a sense of how well it performed in the white stuff. The electronic all-wheel-drive system is always more than capable of trekking through mounds of snow, and really, I don't have any issues on that end. But being able to get through snow is only one part of the wintertime equation.

My west coast colleagues praised the Highlander as a comfortable machine on the state's mostly smooth roads. Indeed, I think it's a great partner on the freeway most of the time. But out here in Ohio, ice buckles the pavement on the regular. Chunks of asphalt go missing as plows speed by. Quick patching creates road stretches that turn into what may as well be speed bumps. The Highlander Hybrid handles things mostly well, but man, it transfers some not-so-nice feelings into the cabin. A couple times, I felt like the Highlander saw stars from some bigger bumps, based on what I felt inside. The big ol' 20-inch wheels probably don't help matters, either.

I spent a lot of time with our long-term Hyundai Palisade -- one of the Highlander's chief rivals -- and there are definitely some noticeable differences. The Hyundai feels more like a tall car and easily soaked up rough bumps. The Highlander is more truck-like by comparison, and it feels a lot larger than the Palisade from behind the wheel. On the other hand, I prefer the Highlander's steering to the Hyundai's -- it's more direct, and not quite as numb.

What I was most curious to see was how the chilly temperatures would affect our Highlander Hybrid's fuel economy -- big batteries and cold weather don't really mix, friends. From an initial average of 32 miles per gallon, the Highlander Hybrid quickly fell. I even did a long freeway loop at a steady 70 mph and couldn't crack 29.5 mpg. The EPA says our Highlander Hybrid with all-wheel drive should return 35 mpg city and 35 mpg highway, but even in slightly warmer temperatures and while driving solely in Eco mode, the best I can do is still 32 mpg.

Maybe the EPA's estimates are somewhat generous. After all, my California-based editors weren't exactly seeing stellar fuel economy either. I totally see what they mean about this engine's awful noise, too -- it really, truly groans. Looking past those noises, however, the 2.5-liter I4 and continuously variable transmission work well, and the transitions between battery and engine power are buttery smooth. Plus, our Platinum tester's JBL sound system really kicks butt, making it easy to drown out that engine drone.

The Highlander's time in Ohio is over, and it's now over in Michigan where it'll enjoy springtime with our Detroit crew. Of course, you can't rule out the chance of more snow 'round these parts, even as we head into April.

Check in with Roadshow's other long-term testers