limited, platinum, blueAutomotive News Test Drive Reviews 

2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Test Drive

Pros: Seating for seven; responsive touchscreen infotainment system; great gas mileage

Cons: Price climbs with options

Competes with: No direct competitors; however, buyers should look at the standard Toyota Highlander, Dodge Durango, Honda Pilot, Chevrolet Traverse and other three-row crossover SUVs.

Reasons to buy this vehicle…

– If you like technology, then you’ll love the 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid’s Hybrid Synergy Drive System. The V6 engine and electric motors work together to ensure that power is instantaneous. An “EV Mode” allows the big crossover SUV to stealthily cruise about town on electric power alone. All that under-hood technology nets an EPA-estimated 28 MPG combined.

– Families will appreciate the 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid’s ability to easily seat seven. Driver and front-passenger get to enjoy the perks of heated and cooled seats, while second-row riders will appreciate the comfort of two captain’s chair seats. The 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid also comes standard with Toyota’s Driver Easy Speak. Driver Easy Speak uses a microphone to carry the voices of the driver and front-seat passenger through the rear speakers, thus allowing front-seat passengers to talk to rear-seat passengers without the need to shout.

Illuminated in the 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid’s dashboard is the word ‘READY,’ and its presence is the difference between sitting silently in Toyota’s big crossover SUV and driving quietly toward your destination.

A gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle, the 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid generally forgoes using its big 3.5-liter V6 engine upon startup and instead favors its electric motors for motivation. With no engine noise to accompany almost every push of the 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid’s blue ‘Start’ button, the ‘READY’ dashboard light is often the only way a driver can tell that the seven-passenger Toyota Highlander Hybrid is prepared to slip into gear.

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Exterior

Redesigned last year, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid enters 2015 with no exterior changes. In fact, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid looks nearly identical to its gasoline-only counterpart, save for the addition of blue treatment to the Highlander Hybrid’s Toyota badges and some model-specific badging on the doors and tailgate.

More than 2-inches longer than its predecessor, the 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is more chiseled than previous iterations of Toyota’s mid-size crossover SUV. A blunt front end with a large grille and narrow headlights provides the Highlander with tougher looks than many of its competitors. Meanwhile, a high beltline increases the Highlander’s perceived length.

A rare find among mid-size crossover SUVs is the 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid’s two-piece tailgate, which allows the rear glass to open separately from the gate. This simple feature makes it easy to quickly place or reach for cargo located behind the Highlander Hybrid’s third-row seat, and also provides owners with the option to leave the glass open to transport lengthy items like a surfboard or lumber.

LED daytime running lights located low in the front fascia and five-spoke 19-inch Chromtec® alloy wheels round out the 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid’s exterior looks.

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Interior

Spacious and versatile, the seven-passenger 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid’s interior is filled with luxuries like an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system, a JBL premium audio system, three-zone automatic climate control, a 4.2-inch LCD screen in the gauge cluster, a navigation system, leather seats in the first and second rows, heated and ventilated front seats, and captain’s chair second-row seats.

Like the standard 2015 Toyota Highlander, the 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid’s massive center console offers almost a full cubic foot of space. Easily able to accommodate multiple tablet computers or a large purse, Toyota claims that the big storage compartment can hold up to 60 juice boxes. A storage lip, located just above the shift lever and extending over to the passenger side of the cabin, is a perfect place to throw loose items like a cell phone. While the majority of the 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid’s interior is shared with the 2015 Toyota Highlander Limited, one thing is not: the gauge cluster. In place of the Highlander’s tachometer, the Highlander Hybrid incorporates an ‘eco’ gauge with a needle that swings between ‘PWR’ (power), ‘ECO’ (economy) and ‘CHG’ (charge), the latter of which lets the driver know when the Highlander Hybrid’s regenerative braking is charging the vehicle’s battery pack.

Cargo room is plentiful, measuring 13.8 cubic feet behind the third row seats. Fold the rearmost row, and 42 cubic feet of cargo space reveals itself (42.3 cubic feet without the panoramic sunroof). Need more room? Toss the two second-row bucket seats down and the Highlander Hybrid offers up 82.6 cubic feet of space (83.2 cubic feet without the panoramic sunroof).

Although the Highlander Hybrid’s cargo space is great for carrying large items, the crossover SUV’s length can make it hard for the driver or front-seat passenger to communicate with rear passengers. Toyota combats this by including its Driver Easy Speak technology in the 2015 Highlander Hybrid. Driver Easy Speak uses a microphone to carry the regular speaking voice or voices of the driver and/or front-seat passenger through the rear speakers, so that second- and third-row passengers can clearly hear what’s going on up front. We used this feature a number of times during our week with the Highlander Hybrid, and found the vocal clarity of the system to be outstanding.

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Performance

Thanks to a big 3.5-liter V6 and three electric motors, the 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid makes a combined system output of 280 horsepower. Just as in the standard 2015 Toyota Highlander, the Highlander Hybrid’s V6 engine is buttery smooth from idle on up. The V6 engine works with an electric motor to power the front wheels of the Highlander Hybrid. Another electric motor starts the engine and controls the ratio of the Highlander Hybrid’s continuously variable transmission (CVT). The third and final electric motor sits at the rear of the crossover SUV and powers the Highlander Hybrid’s rear wheels. As such, every 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid comes standard with all-wheel drive.

While the combination of a gasoline engine and multiple electric motors may sound complicated (and it is), it certainly never feels complicated. The Highlander Hybrid switches between electric and gas power, or some combination thereof, smoothly and efficiently.

Although not particularly fast, the 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is quick enough so as to never leave the driver wanting for additional power. Credit goes to the instantaneous torque of the Highlander Hybrid’s electric motors and the V6’s incredibly flat powerband. Even more impressive is the Highlander Hybrid’s EPA-estimated fuel economy figures of 27 MPG city, 28 MPG highway and 28 MPG combined. In mixed driving, we managed to see approximately 27 MPG.

Drivers looking to eek the most miles out of a gallon of fuel can choose to drive in either EV or ECO mode. EV mode allows the Highlander Hybrid to be driven on electricity alone at low speeds for short distances, while ECO mode encourages increased fuel efficiency.

Regardless of drive mode, the 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid’s ride quality is geared toward comfort. Sufficient use of sound-deadening materials and a refined chassis work together to keep wind and road noise out of the cabin. Despite its comfortable ride, the 2015 Toyota Highlander also handles quite well. It tackles on- and off-ramps with ease, and manages quick transitions with surprising confidence and little body roll.

While the 2015 Toytoa Highlander Hybrid is more than capable of quickly coming to a halt, the transition between the regenerative braking system, which uses the electric motor to slow the Highlander Hybrid down and charge the battery, and the mechanical braking system can sometimes be abrupt. The result is unexpectedly sudden deceleration that can leave drivers of the Highlander Hybrid short of their intended stopping point. Owners of the Highlander Hybrid will adapt to the brakes after a few hundred miles behind the wheel, just as we did; however, it is a quirk that certainly takes some getting used to, especially if you don’t already own a hybrid vehicle.

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Safety

The 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid comes standard with traction and stability control, eight airbags, a rearview camera and a blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert. Our 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid test car added the Limited trim’s Platinum Package, which adds a pre-collision system, a radar cruise control system, a lane departure warning system and automatic high-beam headlights. These items are also available in the Driver Technology Package, which keeps the Platinum Package’s safety items, but forgoes its panoramic sunroof, heated steering wheel and heated second-row seats.

Crash testing conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) resulted in the 2015 Toyota Highlander earning the NHTSA’s highest overall safety rating of “5 Stars.”

Meanwhile, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gave the 2015 Toyota Highlander its highest award of “Top Safety Pick+.”

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Price

Starting at $47,750 (MSRP), the 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid comes loaded from the factory. Whereas the gas-only 2015 Toyota Highlander is available in LE, LE Plus, XLE and Limited trims, the Hybrid is strictly offered in Limited trim. This means the 191.1-inch long crossover SUV comes standard with luxuries like heated and cooled front seats, captain’s chairs seats in the second-row, a blind-spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert, a three-zone automatic climate control system, a sunroof, a navigation system and a premium JBL audio system, among additional perks.

Our Nautical Blue Metallic test vehicle also included the Platinum Package, which added a pre-collision system, a radar cruise control system, a lane departure warning system, automatic high-beam headlights, a panoramic sunroof, a heated steering wheel and heated second-row seats. With a $49,990 (MSRP) price tag, our Highlander Hybrid Limited Platinum added just shy of $3,000 in miscellaneous equipment, including running boards, roof rack cross bars and a tow hitch. Topped off with an $885 delivery fee, our 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited Platinum test vehicle cost a total of $53,771 (MSRP).

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Overall

The 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is a fantastic mid-size crossover SUV. It gets terrific fuel economy, drives and handles very well, and offers sufficient cargo room and passenger space. In fact, the only real knock against the Highlander Hybrid is its price. While we think the $47,750 (MSRP) 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is a fair deal for this technologically-advanced seven-passenger crossover SUV, our Platinum Package tester’s $53,771 (MSRP) price tag struck us as being on the high side.

If you really want the hybrid powertrain, we suggest getting the well-equipped standard 2015 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Buyers interested in the Platinum Package should instead consider adding it to the gasoline-only 2015 Toyota Highlander Limited. Although fuel economy on the all-wheel drive Highlander Limited is down by 7 MPG in the city and 4 MPG on the highway compared to the Highlander Hybrid, the 2015 Toyota Highlander Limited Platinum also costs nearly $6,000 less than its gasoline-electric counterpart.

Photos by Dave Pankew

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