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.
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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.
I had my reservations about this feature on my first ride in a preproduction version of the new Highlander, but after a week with the system in the real world (and a few trips shuttling around several chatty 30-somethings), I'm satisfied with how transparent Driver Easy Speak is when you're not using it and with how easy it was to make myself heard throughout the cabin without having to turn my head to shout to the third row.
This feature works well with the convex "mommy mirror" that drops down from the sunglasses holder to help busy parents to keep their eyes on the road when dealing with a carload of kids.
Like the gasoline-powered variant, this Highlander Hybrid model is available with a full array of driver-aid technologies, which amount to lots of warning tech but few intervention systems. At this trim level, most of of that tech is bundled up nicely in a Platinum Package.
We have, for example, active high-beams that automatically dims the bright lights when a camera detects the lights of another vehicle ahead to prevent dazzling other drivers. The same camera array is used to detect the lane markers and power the lane-departure warning system that alerts the driver when the vehicle drifts out of its lane without a turn signal at speeds above 35 mph.
Sonar sensors on the rear bumper power the blind-spot-monitoring system that illuminates an LED in the side mirrors when a vehicle is detected in the Highlander's blind spots. These sensors do double duty as proximity sensors when reversing or parking the SUV, working in tandem with the standard rear-view camera system.
There's also a forward-collision warning system and an adaptive cruise-control system, both of which are powered by a forward-facing radar sensor hidden beneath the large "T" logo on the Highlander's grille. Toyota's adaptive cruise system isn't full-range -- many of the more modern setups that we've tested will bring the vehicle to a full stop and even crawl at low speeds. In this case, if the speed of the car ahead drops below about 25 mph, the cruise control will disable itself.
Cabin comfort, Toyota touches
I was able to test a Highlander model that was equipped with an optional Panoramic moonroof with a motorized shade that slid back to reveal a mostly glass roof. Skip this option and you could choose to instead equip a ceiling-mounted rear seat DVD entertainment system. In a world where kids would rather carry their own tablets or portable game consoles, the moonroof is probably the better investment.
The Highlander isn't what I'd call "luxurious," but it is a remarkably quiet car; partially because the cabin is so well insulated and partially because this Hybrid model encourages quiet, electrically assisted driving.
As a result, the optional JBL GreenEdge audio system doesn't have to work very hard to sound good. I was pleased with the staging and stereo channel separation that I was able to hear over the course of a few test tracks. Voices, strong midranges, and delicate highs are what this 10-speaker system does best. Heavy and clean bass reproduction isn't its strong point -- in fact, we noticed a bit of door-panel rattle in our two previous tests of the gasoline Highlander -- but the Hybrid's quiet cabin allows you to listen comfortably at lower volumes, below the threshold of bass distortion.
The Highlander's cabin seems mostly well sorted out, with neat features to be discovered here and there. One of my favorites was a mobile phone shelf located below the infotainment system where the driver or passenger can stow their cellphones without occupying a cupholder. This shelf featured a small cable management pass-through that allowed a USB or charging cable to be passed through to the 12-volt power outlet below and keeping users from having to deal with cords being draped across the center console.
Speaking of the center console, opening the armrest's sliding covers reveals a storage cavity large enough to fit a small laptop or a few tablets, which is great for hiding away valuables when parked.
Additionally, I liked the Highlander's power lift gate, which featured a separate openable rear glass window hatch. Most users will probably use this small liftable window only a few times, but it's nice to know that it's there.
Though the gasoline variants of the 2014 Toyota Highlander are available in a variety of trim levels, starting as low as $29,215 for the LE four-cylinder FWD, the Highlander Hybrid starts at $47,300. As the top-tier model, the Hybrid comes pretty close to fully loaded with premium audio, Entune connected tech, and the upgraded leather interior trim.
Our fully-loaded Hybrid Limited with Platinum Package rolls out at a range-topping MSRP of $49,790. For the money, the Platinum Package adds the aforementioned driver-aid tech, the automatic high-beam headlamps, the panoramic moonroof, and heating to the steering wheel and second-row captain's chairs.
|Model||2014 Toyota Highlander Hybrid|
|Powertrain||3.5L V-6, Hybrid Synergy Drive, eCVT, AWD-i|
|EPA fuel economy||27 city, 28 highway, 28 combined mpg|
|Observed fuel economy||28.5 mpg|
|Navigation||Standard with Entune/Bing destination search|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Bluetooth audio streaming, USB, 3.5mm analog auxiliary input, Entune apps, CD, HD Radio, satellite radio|
|Audio system||JBL Green Edge premium audio|
|Driver aids||Adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning, blind-spot monitoring, rear camera and proximity sensors, lane-keeping alert, automatic high-beam headlamps|
|Price as tested||$50,875|