(Cybertech) – We’re probably showing our age here, but when someone says “Highlander” it’s hard to not visualise Christopher Lambert’s 1986 movie of the same name. That said, the Toyota Highlander – the marque’s biggest SUV – is hardly new, as it’s been around for over 20 years, since the turn of the millennium.
From a UK perspective, however, the Highlander is all new, with this Hybrid model representing this SUV’s first time on our roads. It’s only available with a hybrid powertrain on these shores, making for a fairly individual pitch. To paraphrase the movie (we just can’t help ourselves): “there can be only one!” – as you’re not going to find many other 7-seat hybrids, save for examples like the pricier and plug-in Volvo XC90 T8 and Audi Q7 TFSI e.
So is the Highlander Hybrid as immortal as Lambert’s character? Given the sheer scale of this 7-seat station wagon it’ll be hard to not feel invincible when sat behind the wheel.
From an outside perspective the look is very Toyota, with all the modern design cues, such as the trapezoidal grille and blue-tinted badge on the front (showing a touch of hybrid there).
There’s no escaping that the Highlander is a large vehicle; even its lowering roofline and those subtle curves to its sides can’t shroud the scale of this vehicle. That said, it’s not too outlandish either: there aren’t the off-the-charts quirky headlights like Toyota’s Prius.
Whether you think it’s as contemporary or European as a Volvo or Audi is a whole other question. And while you may have a preference one way or other, really the Highlander is mostly about practicality and space.
This is where the Highlander really sells itself. With three rows of seats – a pair up front, three to the centre, three to the rear – it’s a 7-seater as standard, driving appeal for families.
Or, who knows, maybe you want to drop the third row to reveal the gigantic boot space – it’s 1.13 metres long in that arrangement, which is huge – so you could easily fit a couple of dog crates in there for when you’re carting Mog and Molly, the Irish wolfhounds, out and about (there’s probably a joke here about West Highlander Terriers, but we wouldn’t dare, but of course).
The third row, when it’s up, is accessible through power-sliding the second row forwards to permit access. It’s not the biggest of spaces to sit, but if you’ve got a big family that’ll be on the road often then it’s perfectly fitting for young’uns.
The seats are comfy, too, with heated/cooled options available for the front pair. There’s a diamond-shape style throughout, providing cushioning where needed.
And to make everything feel airier a panoramic roof comes as standard. That’s usually thousands extra for some of the high-end brands, so is a nice touch to add to the sense of space.
Sat in the drivers seat, however, and the Highlander doesn’t feel at the top of its game when it comes to tech configuration and layout. This is where Audi rules the roost and the Highlander – while cheaper, for sure – doesn’t come anywhere close.
The main driver’s dials are all physical, mechanical objects – not built-in displays with adjustable options, as is so common these days. The mass of buttons surrounding the high-positioned integrated screen on the dashboard looks a bit dated already, too. Not to mention that for such a massive car and interior, that screen, at just 8-inches, looks small – and there’s no option for the 12-inch model in the UK, as you can find elsewhere.
Again, though, it’s all very practical. You won’t be digging through menus to find what you need. There are some great standards, such as a JBL soundsystem that’s rather decent, plus you can amp up the whole so-so navigation and infotainment experience with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto if you would prefer – so it’s got its good foot in the modern door. Even the air conditioning can be tri-zoned, so you can look after the temperature of all your passengers/family members.
Really and truly you don’t need several screens looking all fancy but not doing all that much. So the Highlander averts that, but in so doing it just appears a little last-gen. Which might also sound like something of a contradiction when there are oddities such as a digital rear-view mirror here (and unexpected and unnecessary surprise).
Don’t think of the Highlander Hybrid as you would a plug-in hybrid (PHEV), as the kind of range on offer here is very slight – you’re talking a mile or so of pure electric power, acquired from regenerative braking.
Now that might sound approaching pointless, but it’s not: because it’s always regenerating while driving, it will bring an improvement to overall consumption figures (39mpg is quoted). Meanwhile combined CO2 emissions, at 163g/km, also place the Highlander into a reasonable bracket for such a large vehicle – it’s one lower down than a Volvo XC90 T5’s 184g/km, for example.
Having an electric motor driving this all-wheel drive system delivers reasonable power – it’s actually Toyota’s most powerful full-hybrid system yet – that will see the Highlander from 0-62mph in 8.3 seconds. Not that you’ll be racing this wagon around much. Really it’s the quietness of a near-silent electric pull-away that we found most refined.
The petrol engine, here a 2.5-litre four-cylinder arrangement, does kick in with a bit of noise thereafter – although Toyota is keen to point out how much dampening has gone into the engine compartment and even all the windows to deliver a, let’s say, not rorty driving experience.
In terms of handling the Highlander is, well, effortless really. It’s comfortable, easy to manage, and we didn’t feel as though we were commanding a tank when on the roads – yes it’s large, but it’s not unwieldy. That’s the key boxes ticked for the whole family then.
So can there be only one? Well, like we say, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid is a fairly individual pitch – as you won’t find many 7-seat hybrid SUVs on the market.
Yes, it’s still over £50K, so it’s no small chunk of change, and the hybrid system delivers very low genuine mileage from electric only. But the Highlander’s obvious competitors, such as the Volvo XC90 and Audi Q7, sit yet higher up the asking price ranks.
The Highlander’s overall tech experience already feels somewhat outdated, however, so it’s not the most future-facing car you’ll ever see. But it firmly ticks all the ‘practical’ boxes, ensuring heaps of space and comfort for carting around larger numbers of passengers/family members than you could in something smaller.
Which makes the Highlander Hybrid somewhat niche. But if 7-seats are a must and you want the mild benefit of a hybrid system then there’s few other places to go looking. Which ought to deliver a captive audience.
Writing by Mike Lowe.