A capable and seriously practical family SUV with hybrid power as standard

The Toyota Highlander isn’t a car that’ll be familiar to most people in the UK, but if you live in the USA, Russia or Japan you may well recognise it. This fourth-generation model is the first that’s been available in Western Europe and the UK, with Toyota now deciding that it has a gap to fill in its passenger car lineup.

The Highlander is a large, seven-seater SUV in the same vein as cars such as the Kia Sorento, Skoda Kodiaq and Land Rover Discovery – but with a uniquely Toyota character and specification. Chief among these is its hybrid powertrain, which is the only engine option and promises low running costs and a smooth, easy driving dynamic.

It sits really comfortably in between Toyota’s RAV4 SUV and its Land Cruiser off-roader, which was previously the only seven-seat Toyota car and only available with a rather agricultural diesel engine.

Simple model lineup makes for an easy choice
Toyota’s really made choosing a Highlander easy. There’s a pair of well-equipped trim levels and just one engine, so there’s no need for buyers to navigate a confusing mess of option packs.

The range kicks off with Excel models, which have almost all the equipment you could want – 20-inch alloy wheels, heated leather seats, tri-zone climate control, LED headlamps and a panoramic sunroof to name but a few highlights.

Excel Premium trim adds a few choice luxury touches, such as a head-up display, ventilated front seats and a ‘smart’ rear view mirror (actually a screen with rear camera feed), but unless you’re truly committed to owning the best variant there’s almost no need.

This does mean that the Highlander’s starting price is significantly higher than some of its main rivals, but the gap narrows when you consider similarly-equipped models. It effectively straddles the line between premium hybrid SUVs, such as the Volvo XC90, and more value-oriented offerings such as the Kia Sorento.

Hybrid engine is particularly good
Toyota’s been building hybrid engines for more than two decades, and its latest effort in the Highlander is a particularly good offering. It’s a self-charging hybrid rather than a plug-in – Toyota says drivers of cars like this typically take longer trips than would suit their limited electric-only range. Though it hasn’t totally ruled out a plug-in Highlander in the future (the mechanically similar RAV4 has a PHEV option), it would likely involve losing the two rearmost seats to make space for the battery – making it unlikely.

It pairs a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with two electric motors, shuffling between the two power sources as it sees necessary. It’s got plenty of power, even for such a big car, which means you don’t have to work the engine hard. That eliminates a typical issue of hybrid cars, namely that they tend to rev uncomfortably high – not an issue with the Highlander unless you really try to press on.

It’s also highly refined – nearly silent at a cruise – and very efficient, easily matching its diesel competition in this area. Smooth and powerful, it’s a great match for the Highlander’s bulk.

Hugely versatile interior
The Highlander seats seven, though the third row is somewhat tighter than rivals such as the Land Rover Discovery – it’s better suited to children or short journeys with adults.

Toyota Highlander rear three quarterEnlarge0videoEnlarge16photo
There’s loads of room in the two forward rows, though, and the centre row slides forwards and back by 180mm to balance legroom and luggage space.

The boot’s incredibly practical, too. With all seven seats in place there’s more luggage space than you find in a Land Rover Discovery or a Volvo XC90. In five seat mode, it’s bigger yet, and with all the rear seats folded there’s a cavernous 1,909 litres of space up to the roof, with a completely flat floor.

 Toyota Highlander practicality and boot space

The Highlander is one of the largest cars Toyota sells – smaller only than the long-wheelbase Land Cruiser and the decidedly van-like Proace Verso.

Those exterior dimensions have been well-used and translate into a spacious interior with seven seats and a cavernous boot.

The front seats are particularly wide, soft and comfortable, as you’d perhaps expect for a car that sells very well in the USA. The second row is great too, with space for a six-foot adult to stretch out.

The third row’s a little tighter. Unlike the Land Rover Discovery, you won’t particularly want to seat adults back here, at least not for long trips – but they’ll be fine on short journeys, and there’s plenty of space for children.

The second row slides fore and aft by 180mm, too, allowing you to effectively balance legroom between the seats. Isofix child seat mounting points are present in the two outer seats.

Interior stowage space is excellent, and has been very well thought out – not always a given, even in cars that purport to be family friendly. The Highlander offers a big glovebox and a large centre cubby under the armrest for larger items, while storage for smaller oddments is ample – there are smartphone-sized pockets in all four doors, ideal when every passenger has their own device.

Boot
The Highlander’s boot is one of the biggest around, even among similar large SUVs. With all seven seats in place, there’s still 332 litres of space – that’s the size of a good-sized supermini’s boot, and easily enough to accommodate a family’s weekly shop.

Drop the third row of seats, meanwhile, and you’ll liberate 658 litres – and with both rear rows of seats folded there’s a cavernous 1,909 litres up to the roof. The rear seats also go totally flat, making it easier to load bulky or awkward items, while all cars get an electric tailgate. On top-spec Excel Premium cars, it's gesture-operated by waving a foot under the rear bumper.

If that huge boot still isn’t enough for you, the Highlander will tow a trailer up to 2.0-tonnes in weight.

Safety
The Toyota Highlander hasn’t yet been tested by safety organisation Euro NCAP, but the signs are encouraging for it scoring well when it is.

North American market models were very highly rated by the USA’s Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, earning their highest commendation – a Top Safety Pick+.

The mechanically similar, albeit smaller, RAV4 SUV scored a full five stars when NCAP tested in 2019, which is a further encouraging sign.

Toyota’s loaded the Highlander with active safety aids, too, as part of its Advanced Toyota Safety Sense pack. All models come with autonomous emergency braking capable of detecting vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists in day or night conditions. There’s also Emergency Steering Assist and Intersection Turn Assist, both of which will actively steer you away from an impending collision.

Lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, automatic high beam headlights, blind spot monitors and rear cross traffic alert complete a thoroughly impressive armada – and it’s all standard equipment on both of the Highlander’s trim levels.

Toyota Highlander interior and comfort

Toyota’s taken plenty of lessons from its RAV4 SUV when it comes to the Highlander’s interior trim, and in many ways that’s a really good thing.

It’s lovely and straightforward to navigate, with most of the controls positioned up relatively high on the dashboard so you don’t have to take your eyes too far off the road to work them, and in a sensible layout.

Better still, functions are, for the most part, controlled by big, chunky buttons and dials rather than awkward touch-sensitive pads. As a result, we think most drivers will feel at home in here very quickly indeed.

Build quality feels up to Toyota’s usual high standards and the Highlander looks as though it’s well-equipped for the rough and tumble of family life. Ergonomics are good, too – it’s not too high up of a clamber into the driver’s seat, and there’s plenty of adjustment. The view out of the narrow rear window is rather compromised, but that’s a gripe you’ll find on most cars of this size and shape.

Those expecting sumptuous luxury like you’d find on a Land Rover Discovery may be disappointed, though. With the exception of a little shiny trim and some token fake wood, almost everything’s a shade of dour grey or black, and the design is practical rather than stylish. Thank goodness for the standard panoramic glass roof, or the Highlander’s interior would feel very dark indeed.

The infotainment system is also rather below-par by the standards of the segment. Its 8.0-inch screen feels rather small perched atop the dashboard, and the interface is outdated and awkward to use. That’s grating against more expensive rivals such as the Land Rover Discovery or Volvo XC90 – but it’s embarrassing to think that base-model Kia Sorentos or SsangYong Rextons come equipped with a superior infotainment system.

The specification is otherwise very good, however. All models come with the aforementioned panoramic roof, but keyless entry, LED headlamps, triple-zone climate control, a wireless charging pad, leather upholstery and a premium JBL sound system are also present even on the ‘base’ model – a high level of spec that goes a long way towards explaining the Highlander’s entry price compared with some rivals’ more Spartan accommodations on their lower trim levels.

Comfort
Refinement is one of the Highlander’s most impressive points. The hybrid engine is virtually silent at a cruise, and provided you don’t hoof it and keep the revs low it’s very quiet around town too. Combined with low levels of road noise, the most intrusive sound you’ll hear is a moderate level of wind noise whipping around its bluff front end and large door mirrors.

With soft suspension, the Highlander rides well over most surfaces – it’s not as pillowy soft as the Land Rover Discovery’s air springs but still deals effectively with all but the largest potholes. It resists body roll surprisingly well for such a tall car, too, helping reduce potential car sickness – ideal when you could have the back rows full of children…

The front seats are heated on all models, while top-spec cars come with heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats and a heated steering wheel. Particularly toasty in the winter.

 Toyota Highlander running costs and mpg

What is miles per pound?
Hybrid petrol engines 7.0 - 7.1 mppLow figures relate to the least economical version; high to the most economical. Based on WLTP combined fuel economy for versions of this car made since September 2017 only, and typical current fuel or electricity costs.



Running costs for the Toyota Highlander should prove impressively low by the standards of the large SUV class, but a slightly deeper dive than usual is required to figure out why.

It’s true that, without a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) model in the range, Toyota can’t claim anything like the 100.9mpg Volvo can for its XC90 T8 (when tested on the WLTP cycle). However, numbers like these are often only achievable with short journeys and regular charging stops. Toyota reckons buyers of large SUVs like the Highlander want a vehicle that’s also efficient on longer journeys.

To that end, fuel economy from its single self-charging hybrid powertrain ranges from 39.2 to 39.7mpg – and during a long, mixed test route we bested that with over 41mpg showing on the trip computer.

That’s a highly impressive figure and one that’s comparable to a lot of diesel SUVs. However, unlike a modern diesel, the Highlander doesn’t require a long warmup period or regular substantial journeys to clear out its emissions systems – it’ll provide strong economy on short runs just as well as it does longer ones.

CO2 emissions range from 160-163g/km, meaning the Highlander attracts a low first year VED bill and even lower company car tax. Those figures are on a par with the Kia Sorento Hybrid, which starts at 158g/km – however, once you apply a similar level of specification, the Kia’s CO2 is higher.

Few surprises here – Toyota cars are some of the most reliable vehicles you can buy, and its hybrids are legendary for their longevity. Just look at the number of Prius taxis clocking up mega miles in cities around the world…

While there’s not yet any data on the Highlander’s past in the UK – remember, this is the first time it’s been available in Western Europe – its reputation in the USA in particular is of a very solid and reliable vehicle.

Like all Toyotas, it’s backed up with a five-year, 100,000 mile warranty, and Toyota dealers are known for providing excellent, fuss-free service.

 Toyota Highlander engines and performance

Strong performance, but not for speed demons
Choosing an engine for your Toyota Highlander couldn’t be easier – there’s only one, so you like it or lump it.

It’s the latest evolution of Toyota’s 2.5-litre self-charging hybrid powertrain, similar to the engine found in the RAV4 as well as some Lexus models. It pairs a four-cylinder petrol engine with two electric motors, one on each axle providing four-wheel drive – though the car stays front-wheel drive until it senses a loss of grip.

We’re pleased to say that for most drivers, it should provide stellar service.

With 248hp it’s certainly no slouch – 0-62mph is dealt with in 8.3 seconds, which is more than fast enough for a family SUV. What that power really does is mean you don’t have to strain the Highlander’s engine to make good progress.

That’s important as common to all Toyota hybrids is a continuously variable transmission. These have the tendency to send the revs spiralling high as soon as the driver asks for a bit of extra pace, making for a raucous experience. But with the Highlander’s ample pulling power, especially at low speeds where the two electric motors can really lend a hand, the engine remains hushed unless you really floor it.

It’s possible to force the Highlander to drive in ‘EV’ mode for a few miles, by pressing a button near the gear selector, but for the most part it’s best to simply let the car get on with it. It’ll shuffle between power sources all by itself, and the electric motors can cut in at speeds up to 78mph so they’re even useful on the motorway.

There are four other driving modes, named Eco, Normal, Sport and Trail. Eco dulls the throttle response in a bid to force you to drive more carefully, but it makes the Highlander feel rather sluggish. Sport goes too far the other way, sharpening responses to the point where it’s fairly difficult to drive the car smoothly. We’d recommend leaving the Highlander in Normal mode most of the time.

Trail Mode optimises the four-wheel drive system and accelerator for the best grip off-road. We haven’t had the opportunity to test the Highlander’s ability in the rough stuff, but it’s not really intended as a hardcore mud-plugger – opt for a Land Cruiser if that’s your priority.

Handling
One look at the Toyota’s bulky bodywork ought to be enough to reassure you this isn’t a particularly sporty car. But that’s fine, because it doesn’t try to be – instead, the Highlander’s strength is comfort.

That doesn’t mean it’s a wobbly mess, though. In fact, with a low centre of gravity, it controls body well much better than you’d expect for a car this size.

Toyota Highlander rear corneringEnlarge0videoEnlarge16photo
The steering is lightweight and direct, so it’s easy to manoeuvre the Highlander at slow speeds and position it where it needs to be on the road. That does translate into being slightly twitchy on the motorway, however.

A total lack of meaningful feedback, however, means those who really enjoy driving ought to opt for something more engaging, such as a Skoda Kodiaq.

 Toyota Highlander verdict

Should you buy a Toyota Highlander?
The Highlander is a surprise hit from Toyota, packing an incredibly family-friendly interior into a package that’s comfortable, efficient, and very well-equipped.

It comfortably ticks every box that’s expected of a large family SUV and should prove conveniently painless to own, too.

The value story isn’t quite as strong as it needs to be for us to recommend it outright, however. A Highlander Excel is more expensive on manufacturer PCP (at the time of writing) than a Volvo XC90 B5 – a car that feels far more premium, and is better to drive too.

It’s even within spitting distance of the excellent Land Rover Discovery, and significantly more expensive than the fiercely capable – albeit slightly smaller – Kia Sorento Hybrid.

The Highlander’s low CO2 and petrol-fuelled powertrain make it a good choice for a company car, though, and if you’re a private buyer who plans on keeping it for a long time then there’s little else we’re so confident about labelling as reliable.

There aren’t that many direct rivals for the Highlander, so if a well-appointed and well-built hybrid SUV – that doesn’t plug in – is on your shopping list, we don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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