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2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid review: The original 3-row hybrid crossover

The Toyota Highlander has always had an electrified variant even before the auto industry began pivoting toward electrification. For a while, the Highlander Hybrid was the sole three-row electrified crossover. Now, that’s no longer the case, Toyota has competitors in that space meaning the Highlander needs to step up to the plate to win a place in your driveway. We have the 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid to see what the latest iteration brings to the table.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid exterior

Photo credit: Stefan Ogbac / EV Pulse

The latest Highlander is a handsome vehicle. Unlike its predecessor, this rig has assertive looks despite the smaller grille. From the side, the Highlander looks slender, almost svelte. The rear, on the other hand, has taillights that accentuate the crossover’s hips, giving it more width.

In terms of size, the Highlander Hybrid is on the smaller side of its segment, measuring at least an inch or two shorter in length and narrower than its competitors.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid interior

Photo credit: Stefan Ogbac / EV Pulse

Step inside the 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid and you’ll find a cabin that’s a nice place to spend time in. The front seats are supportive and comfortable, perfect for long drives. Front occupants also benefit from clever storage solutions like the two trays integrated into the dash and deep center console bin. Equally comfortable are the second-row seats, which slide and recline. Although the Highlander has a third-row standard, they’re best left for kids on short trips or emergency use because they’re tight. Keeping them folded is best and increases the Highlander Hybrid’s cargo capacity to 48.4 cubic feet from 16.0 cubic feet.

Fit and finish fall right along with the majority of the mid-size three-row SUV class. There’s a good helping of padding on touchpoints, and soft, squishy materials on the door cards and dash. The Mazda CX-9, Kia Telluride, and Hyundai Palisade all offer superior build quality versus the Highlander; all three have interiors that punch above their class thanks to better materials. The Highlander Hybrid could also use a little more sound insulation because there’s a lot of wind buffeting at highway speeds.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid tech features

Photo credit: Stefan Ogbac / EV Pulse

Toyota’s latest infotainment system is much improved over previous iterations. Responses are quicker than the older versions and you have more customizability with the home menu’s layout. The 11-speaker JBL audio system is clear and immersive despite its lack of a surround sound function. With the optional 12.3-inch touch screen in our Limited test car, Apple Car Play and Android Auto only take up 75 percent of the display while the other 25 is occupied by additional functions like a power flow gauge and fuel economy monitor. The controls, on the other hand, could be simpler because some are buried within submenus or split from the physical ones in the case of the climate settings. Toyota could also improve the graphics because they’re grainy, especially the maps for the built-in navigation.

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Toyota’s latest suite of driver assistance features (dubbed TSS 2.5+) is a significant improvement over previous ones. Adaptive cruise control is no longer overly conservative with its distancing while lane-centering helps you navigate through gentle turns as long as your hands are on the wheel. Lane-keeping assist eases you back to center instead of jerking you away from the dividers.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid driving impressions

Photo credit: Stefan Ogbac / EV Pulse

The Highlander Hybrid drives with a level of confidence more associated with smaller crossovers. Good body control and communicative steering add to the sensation that you’re driving a smaller vehicle. The Highlander Hybrid’s suspension dispatches road imperfections nicely too; harsh impacts are absorbed promptly even with our Limited test car’s 20-inch alloy wheels. You’re isolated from big bumps and potholes yet the car doesn’t suffer from excessive vertical motions. There’s none of that floatiness associated with comfort-oriented suspensions.

Between the two powertrain options available on the Toyota Highlander, the hybrid variant is the one to get. This unit uses a 2.5-liter I4 coupled to one or two electric motors depending on the drivetrain configuration, a nickel-metal-hydride battery, and a planetary gear set. At 243 hp combined, the Highlander Hybrid is on the lower end of the power spectrum in its segment. However, thanks to the instant torque from the electric motors and responsive throttle, it doesn’t feel lacking at all. Even with the car loaded up, there’s still enough to get you moving without struggling.

Like recent Toyota hybrid vehicles we’ve recently driven, the Highlander Hybrid’s braking is noteworthy for its normalness. Transitions from regenerative to mechanical braking are imperceptible, allowing for consistently smooth stops. AWD models like our test vehicle also have stronger regenerative braking thanks to it having a second electric motor mounted in the rear axle. When you lift off the accelerator, the car immediately starts recovering wasted energy, allowing you to slow down sooner while recharging the battery.

2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid pricing

Our test vehicle is an AWD-equipped 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited. It came with an optional package that adds the 12.3-inch touch screen and a surround-view camera system and several dealer-installed accessories. All told, this test car cost $50,088 including destination. The base Highlander Hybrid LE starts at $39,585.

Final verdict

Photo credit: Stefan Ogbac / EV Pulse

Despite having three rows, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid is best approached as a 5+3 or 4+3 because the rearmost seats are tight even for kids. Once you look at it that way and consider the 36/35/36 mpg city/highway/combined (35/34/35 mpg with AWD in Limited and Platinum guise) EPA fuel economy ratings, clever storage solutions, and smooth ride, you get a solid SUV. The electrified powertrain elevates the Highlander Hybrid’s appeal; you get the flexibility of a mid-size crossover and exceptional efficiency in a single package.

At a glance

  • Year: 2021
  • Make: Toyota
  • Model: Highlander Hybrid
  • Trim: Limited
  • Type: 3-row, 7- to 8-passenger mid-size SUV/crossover
  • Combined horsepower: 243 hp
  • MPG ratings (city/highway/combined): 35/34/35 (AWD LE and XLE: 35/35/35; FWD models: 36/35/36)
  • Pros: Comfortable ride, fuel-efficient powertrain
  • Cons: Cramped third row, infotainment system controls could be easier
  • Base price: $39,585
  • Price as tested: $50,088
Written by Stefan Ogbac
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