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2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Test Drive

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First Impressions

Toyota has significantly updated the 2015 Highlander, and Vehix has sampled two versions of the popular family crossover SUV. For this test drive, we borrowed a 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid (view photos) to review. Vehix contributor Nathan Adlen drove the 2015 Highlander V6. This article will focus on the Hybrid variant.

While all Highlanders are completely restyled forward of the windshield, the Highlander Hybrid gets its own grille, bumper, and stacked fog light design to provide differentiation from the traditional models. Additionally, the headlights and taillights are treated to blue-tinted surrounds, and new 17- and 19-inch wheel designs are available.

Inside, the Highlander Hybrid is equipped with a standard Tech Audio Package, as well as easy-clean fabric, an eight-way power driver’s seat, and rear manual climate controls. A third-row seat is included on all 2015 Highlander Hybrids, and a new Leather Package loaded with goodies can be added to the base model. The Highlander Hybrid Limited has new perforated leather upholstery and a standard triple-zone climate control system.

Another change for 2015 sits under the hood. A more powerful and advanced 3.5-liter V6 engine is now paired with the Highlander’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system, replacing the old 3.3-liter V6. In addition to this upgrade, a new Econ driving mode adjusts throttle control programming to reduce throttle response during acceleration, thereby conserving more fuel. The EPA says the Highlander Hybrid should get 28 mpg in the city and on the highway.

Based on a week spent driving the revamped Highlander Hybrid, the changes for 2015 are welcomed. But we didn’t get 28 mpg, that’s for sure.

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Pricing, Trims and Options

The 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is sold in Base or Limited trim levels, each equipped with a standard on-demand four-wheel-drive system. Prices open at $38,300 for the Base model, a premium of $8,795 over a regular Highlander V6. Standard equipment includes air conditioning, power windows, power door locks with remote entry, power mirrors, a tilt and telescopic steering wheel, cruise control, an eight-way power driver’s seat, privacy glass, a full-size spare, and other items. In the midsize crossover SUV class, these are considered to be the basics, and their presence is expected.

Differences from a standard Highlander that justify the four-figure premium, in addition to the Hybrid Synergy Drive powertrain and an on-demand 4WD system, include blue accented headlights and taillights, fog lights, black roof rails, and a lift-up glass hatch. Inside, the hybrid model is significantly upgraded, including a Tech Audio Package (XM satellite radio with a free 90-day trial, Bluetooth hands-free calling and music streaming, USB port with iPod connectivity) and a 3.5-inch multi-information display with a reversing camera. Other standard features includes Optitron blue-illuminated gauges with Hybrid Synergy Drive displays, a trip computer with outside temperature display and clock, easy-clean fabric, a four-way power passenger’s seat, and controls for the Bluetooth and multi-information display on the steering wheel. The Highlander Hybrid also comes with a Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) system that ties together multiple electronic driving systems to improve safety, and a towing package that allows the SUV to tug up to 3,500 pounds.

Our test car was the Highlander Hybrid Limited, which wears a $43,755 starting price tag. Limited trim adds perforated leather upholstery for the first two rows of seats (the third row is vinyl), a 10-way power driver’s seat with adjustable lumbar and thigh support, heated front seats, a power moonroof, triple-zone automatic climate control, and Smart Key entry and push-button ignition. Leather is wrapped around the steering wheel and shift knob, the interior door handles are dipped in chrome, and the dashboard is fitted with fake wood trim. A power tailgate, windshield wiper de-icer, auto-dimming rearview mirror with a compass, Homelink programmable transmitter are also included, along with exterior puddle lamps and an anti-theft system. Snazzy 19-inch wheels, chrome door handles, and chrome roof rails dress up the Limited model’s exterior.

Toyota offers few option packages for the Highlander Hybrid, though there’s a healthy list of dealer-installed add-ons. Base models can be equipped with an affordable Cold Weather Package (heated mirrors and wiper de-icer) or an expensive Leather Package (leather, heated front seats, Cold Weather Package, 19-inch wheels, JBL premium audio, power moonroof, power liftgate, and some other stuff). Limited models are exclusively available with a voice-controlled, touchscreen navigation system and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system. Fully loaded, the Highlander Hybrid Limited closes in on $49,000.

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Interior Features

Simplicity rules the Highlander’s interior. Our test vehicle did not have the optional navigation or rear seat entertainment systems, so we cannot comment on how effectively they operate, but perhaps due to their absence we were wowed by the standard control layout. Everything, with just a couple of exceptions, is placed exactly where you expect to find it, works intuitively, and is marked with large English lettering.

The exceptions are the Econ and EV buttons, placed right next to each other on the center console near the cupholders. There’s gotta be a better way. First, this location is distracting because it forces the driver to look completely away from the road to find them. Second, if you attempt to activate by touch, often you’ll hit the wrong one. Third, we think EV mode should operate automatically. For the Highlander Hybrid, perhaps it is more important to have these functions located on the steering wheel instead of stereo controls.

Not only is the Highlander Hybrid easy to operate, it’s a purposeful machine designed for everyday living. The front seats are wide and flat, and the rear seats both slide and recline while featuring lots of leg, head, and hip room. This SUV is quite comfortable for five adults, but Toyota provides the option to configure it for four thanks to the Center Stow middle rear seat, which converts the second-row bench into captain’s chairs. The third-row seat is not designed to carry grown-ups, and is best left to children (though we certainly wouldn’t want our kids riding so close to the tailgate).

Better to use the Highlander Hybrid’s one-touch, fold-flat seat operation and keep that last row stowed except for emergencies. That frees up 42.3 cubic-feet of cargo space, which is quite generous. Or, you can fold the second-row seats down to enjoy 94.1 cu-ft of maximum cargo capacity.

If we have any significant complaint about the Highlander Hybrid’s interior, it’s that Toyota employs hard plastic surfaces throughout, and though they did not shine in the sunlight or feel like they’d come out of a Fisher-Price toy factory, they certainly do not reflect the SUV’s substantial sticker price.

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Safety, Quality and Reliability

Toyota equips each of its vehicles with what it calls the Star Safety System, which includes a full suite of frontal, side, and side curtain airbags, stability and traction control, and antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist.

In addition to these features, the Highlander Hybrid (view photos) is equipped with Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM), which ties the elements of the Star Safety System together with the SUV’s electronic power steering, electronic throttle control with intelligence, and electronically controlled braking system. This means that if for whatever reason you don’t seem to be in control of your vehicle, software will attempt to resolve whatever unwanted situation that may be unfolding.

In the event that VDIM can’t fix what went wrong, know that the Highlander is called a “Top Safety Pick” by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which means it provides excellent occupant protection in offset frontal, side, rear, and rollover crashes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had not evaluated the revamped 2015 Highlander when this review was written.

Also unavailable as we pushed this article live was data from J.D. Power and Associates regarding the predicted reliability and long-term durability of the current-generation Highlander. Consumer Reports predicts the Highlander’s reliability will be above average.

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