2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Review

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The Car Connection
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The Car Connection

The Car Connection Expert Review

Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
December 18, 2008

The 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid sticks with the same formula that has worked so well for the 2008 Highlander hybrid—a spacious, feature-laden cabin and very efficient full-hybrid powertrain that lends serious environmental credentials to anyone behind the wheel.

The experts at TheCarConnection.com examined the latest road tests on the new 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid to write this consensus review. Experts from TheCarConnection.com also drove the Toyota Highlander Hybrid and have added more details and driving impressions where relevant—especially when other reviewers’ opinions conflicted. In addition, this review compares the 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid with other vehicles in the green-car class to give you the best advice.

If you’re a discerning "green" buyer, you probably know that the term "hybrid" doesn’t always mean the same thing. So-called full hybrids that can actually be propelled from a stop on electric power alone—versus so-called mild hybrids that just shut off the gas engine when the vehicle isn't moving—are rarer still. The much-improved 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is one of these rare full hybrids, which makes it an especially good fit for urban families. The wholesale changes implemented in 2008 carry over into 2009 and help the Highlander Hybrid’s gas-electric drivetrain run better while still achieving excellent mileage.

The 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is virtually identical, in terms of powertrain, to the ritzy Lexus RX 400h: a 3.3-liter V-6 paired with two electric motors where the transmission would go, plus one more electric motor to drive the rear wheels. The gasoline engine is smooth and refined. When using gasoline plus electrons, the hybrid powertrain produces 270 horsepower, which gives the Highlander Hybrid quick V-8-style acceleration, even though the 2009 Highlander is a larger and heavier vehicle than the one it replaces. EPA-estimated mileage is 27 mpg city, 25 mpg highway.

Members of TheCarConnection.com's team have put thousands of miles on different Toyota Highlander Hybrid models over the past several years. The model has perhaps the smoothest, most seamless power delivery of any hybrid; it has plenty of pep, and it’s very hard to tell exactly when the model switches from electric-only to electric-plus-gasoline or gasoline-only.

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An effective stability control system helps maintain balance and works with the sophisticated hybrid system to enhance safety and poise. However, if you drive where the snow flies, the Hybrid's traction control cannot be turned off—a problem on very slick pavement, as the vehicle will refuse to move.

This second-generation 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid (available in base and Limited trim levels) is very roomy inside and out. While Highlander used to be sized closely to the Ford Escape, it's now closer to the Ford Explorer. Inside, the increased room is put to good use, but the available third row is really for children only. A clever second-row seat can be stored out of the way for access to the third row.

For more information, you might also consult TheCarConnection.com's review of the 2009 Toyota Highlander, regarding its nonhybrid four-cylinder and V-6 models.

The Saturn Vue Green Line is another slightly smaller competitor, but its four-cylinder powertrain is far less complex than that of the 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid and doesn't offer nearly the high-mileage halo. However, it does cost less. The new 2009 Saturn 2-Mode Hybrid boasts a V-6 full-hybrid powertrain and should deliver outstanding performance; it may be a top pick for driving enthusiasts who want to go green. Other competitors, such as the Tahoe Hybrid, are clearly out of the Toyota Highlander Hybrid's class (in both size and luxury features), but those listed do feature full hybrid powertrains. Other vehicles to consider are new turbodiesel models from Mercedes-Benz, Audi, and even Jeep.

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2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Styling

You can always count on Toyota to place function over form, so the bland exterior and practical, pleasing interior on the 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid should come as no surprise.

The 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid receives a complete redesign for 2008, although its basic styling keeps very close to that of the previous version. Several reviews read by TheCarConnection.com wish that Toyota had made a few more changes, at least on the outside.

The 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid comes in both "base and Limited models," according to ForbesAutos, unlike the standard Toyota Highlander, which offers a mid-range Sport trim. The exterior of the 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is smooth and aerodynamic, and Cars.com says the Toyota 2009 Highlander Hybrid is "sleeker than its predecessor and features smooth sides." However, they add that this Toyota Highlander Hybrid "seems a bit too slick—like a convenience store shopper who won't take off his glasses." Cars.com also points out that differences between the Hybrid and its gasoline-only powered siblings are "minimal," consisting mainly of the grille and taillights. Most reviewers were indifferent regarding the ho-hum exterior styling of the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, with the notable exception of Car and Driver, where reviewers feel that the Highlander Hybrid "exhibits no more charisma than Al Gore hosting a paint-mixing seminar." Edmunds simply refers to the Toyota Highlander Hybrid as "beefy," while MyRide.com calls it "odd looking," thanks to "boxy fenders [that] don't fit with the overall shape."

The exterior of the Toyota Highlander Hybrid is no head-turner, but Toyota rarely botches the chance to turn out a stylish interior, and this certainly holds true inside the 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. ForbesAutos points out that the interior is "efficiently designed," and MyRide.com raves about the "modern" interior that sports "a curvaceous two-tier, two-tone dashboard." Cars.com has mixed feelings about the interior of the Toyota 2009 Highlander Hybrid; they appreciate the "oversized knobs for major functions [that are] within easy reach" but are disappointed to find that "the climate controls sit below the stereo, and they're awfully cluttered."

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2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Performance

The 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid trades excitement for efficiency, which it offers in spades.

As long as you approach driving the 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid with the right expectations, it is a very practical people-mover. It does not, however, offer an exhilarating driving experience by any stretch of the imagination.

The full-hybrid Toyota 2009 Highlander Hybrid "combines two electric motors/generators (one at each axle) and a self-recharging battery pack with a 3.3-liter V-6 gasoline engine," according to ForbesAutos. Thanks to its 270-horsepower combined engine output, Car and Driver says that this 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is quick, but "an extremely quiet, capable kind of quick, rather than the stirring, invigorating kind." Edmunds clocks the Toyota Highlander Hybrid accelerating "to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds, which is fairly quick for a seven-passenger midsize SUV." MyRide.com adds that "you probably won't be able to do a burnout or donuts with the Highlander Hybrid," and the "gasoline engine gets thrashy at higher rpms." On the positive side, however, many reviews read by TheCarConnection.com agree with MyRide.com reviewers when they report that "the switch between electric and gasoline power is seamless and almost unnoticeable unless you're gazing at the power display."

ForbesAutos states that all 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid models come equipped with "a continuously variable automatic transmission," and Cars.com adds that "the Hybrid comes only with four-wheel drive." Most of the CVTs on the market today are derided by the press, but MyRide.com is pleased to find "the CVT works well in this application, changing 'gears' more like a regular transmission." Another feature of the Toyota Highlander Hybrid's drivetrain is that "the driver can activate an EV mode, in which the Highlander Hybrid will operate for a greater period of time solely under electric power in certain conditions; similarly, an ECON mode smoothes out throttle response to limit excessive acceleration," according to ForbesAutos.

When looking at a hybrid vehicle, the ultimate question is what fuel economy improvement it offers over its conventional counterparts. In the case of the 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, the difference is prominent, especially in the city. The EPA estimates that the 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid will get 27 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway, compared to 17 mpg city and 23 highway for a standard 4WD Toyota Highlander.

The 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid gets the job done when it comes to fuel economy and ride quality, but in terms of driving excitement, it is near the bottom of the class. Car and Driver reviewers complain that the Toyota Highlander Hybrid needs "more communication from the electric power steering," and MyRide.com seconds that, finding "the steering is numb and on the ponderous side." Car and Driver does, however, commend the Highlander Hybrid for its "quiet and smooth" ride. Stopping the larger-than-before Toyota Highlander are four-wheel-disc anti-lock brakes that Cars.com says are plagued by "spongy response, but the brakes clamp down hard when needed."

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2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Comfort & Quality

The 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is comfortable and spacious, but it disappoints in terms of overall noise levels.

On paper the 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid should be a surefire winner in this category. The Toyota 2009 Highlander Hybrid offers the promise of three rows of seating, impeccable Toyota quality, and an abundance of cargo space. The reality isn't quite as rosy as one might hope, but there are no glaring faults with the 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid.

The 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid can seat up to seven passengers, according to ForbesAutos, thanks to "a third-row seat [that] is standard on the Limited and optional on the base version." MyRide.com reports that "all but the very tallest front passengers will find the Highlander comfortable," thanks to "ample leg, head and shoulder room." In the middle row Edmunds says "the second-row seats recline and then also move fore and aft through 4.7 inches of travel. The second-row seat also incorporates a Center Stow seat, an occasional seat that can also be converted to a center console or even stowed away to create separate captain's chairs." Even the third row, which in most mid-size SUVs is reserved only for those who have really upset the driver, offers a usable amount of space. Cars.com reviewers find that, "depending on where the second row is positioned, the third row can be surprisingly adult-friendly," although "headroom [can be] a bit tight." Car and Driver offers a more moderate opinion, claiming the third row "will do for small adults for short trips, and little kids should be happy back there for a while longer."

Compared to the previous-generation Toyota Highlander Hybrid, the new model has grown significantly, and the extra dimensions are most apparent when it comes to cargo space. MotherProof goes a bit overboard with the hyphens in describing the Toyota Highlander Hybrid as "moderately-sized-yet-totally-spacious," though other reviews read by TheCarConnection.com definitely support that statement. According to Cars.com "the third row folds flat into the floor, and the second row folds nearly flat," and "with all seats folded, maximum cargo volume is 95.4 cubic feet." MyRide.com points out that "with the low liftover height and a hatch opening flush to the cargo floor loading and unloading is easy." Car and Driver reports that the Toyota Highlander Hybrid is not only spacious, "but it also has many clever solutions for interior flexibility."

The one word invariably associated with Toyotas is "quality," but on the 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid some reviewers feel that competitors are catching up to Toyota in this regard. MyRide.com reviewers aren't sold on the quality, finding that "it's not that the materials aren't good quality; they're [just] out of place in a vehicle that starts at $33,700 for the base model." Cars.com is more critical, claiming that "cabin quality is merely average," and while "the window switches, turn signals and center controls could go straight into a Lexus," overall "most areas are trimmed in hard plastics...and the textures lack the appeal of the stuff in several competitors." Few can argue with the overall build quality, though, and MyRide.com says "exterior construction is good" and "panel gaps [are] average size and most of them are even and symmetrical."

Unfortunately, the hig Toyota build quality doesn't translate into a quiet ride inside the 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. ConsumerGuide is disappointed that "wind and road noise are noticed at highway speeds, and the Hybrid's electric motor is annoyingly whiny." Cars.com agrees, finding that the Toyota Highlander Hybrid suffers from "a bit more suspension noise over major bumps than [they've] come to expect in a midsize SUV."

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2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Safety

The 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is a robust SUV with great safety features, including a very welcome backup camera.

There are few areas of the automotive review industry that are truly objective, but it's hard to argue with safety ratings. It's difficult to deny, then, that the 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is one of the safest vehicles on the road today.

The 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid has been crash tested by both NHTSA and the IIHS, and it very nearly earned perfect ratings across the board. NHTSA has awarded the Toyota 2009 Highlander Hybrid perfect five-star ratings in the front driver impact and side impact categories, while the only blemish on the Toyota Highlander Hybrid's NHTSA scorecard came in the front passenger impact category, where it earned four stars. The IIHS has given the Toyota Highlander Hybrid a ringing safety endorsement, awarding it the highest possible rating, "good," in both the frontal offset and side impact tests. Furthermore, the IIHS named the Toyota Highlander Hybrid a Top Safety Pick for its outstanding overall crash test performance.

In addition to the solid construction that yields such high crash-test ratings, the 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid sports a wide range of safety features. Cars.com proclaims, "Toyota didn't skimp on safety features," as "all Highlanders come standard with four-wheel-disc antilock brakes, traction control and an electronic stability system." ForbesAutos adds that "brake assist and electronic brakeforce distribution are standard across the line," and Cars.com says "seven airbags are standard, including the required dual front airbags, a driver's knee airbag and side-impact airbags for the front seats."

The one characteristic of the Toyota Highlander Hybrid that detracts from its overall safety record is the poor visibility to some areas. MyRide.com claims that "with the third row seat and headrests up, the view straight back is like a tunnel," and the visibility "over the right shoulder is only OK because of the second row headrest and the height of the rear side window." Fortunately, ForbesAutos mentions that "a back-up camera" is standard on all 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid models, which is a huge help when reversing.

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2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

Features

The 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is guaranteed to impress with its standard features, but the real treats are found on the options list—and they'll set you back a bit more.

The 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is noticeably more expensive than its conventionally powered sibling, but in addition to the hybrid propulsion, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid offers a greater range of standard features.

According to ConsumerGuide, the 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid in base trim comes with a "leather-wrapped steering wheel w/radio controls" for the single-CD player, "keyless access and starting, rearview camera," and "digital-media player connection" as standard fare. Moving up to the 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited adds "leather upholstery, heated front seats...AM/FM radio w/in-dash 6-disc CD/MP3 changer" and "power liftgate," according to ConsumerGuide. ForbesAutos adds that "a back-up camera and Smart Key entry/start system are among [the Toyota Highlander Hybrid's] many standard features."

In addition to the standard features that the Toyota 2009 Highlander Hybrid boasts, there are plenty of available options for those who crave more technology. ConsumerGuide lists several popular options groups for the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, including the Popular and Popular Plus packages for the base that add a "leather-wrapped steering wheel" and "6-disc CD/MP3 changer," along with the Limited's "power liftgate w/power window." Car and Driver reviewers are particularly impressed with the "whompin' optional JBL sound system," while those at MotherProof love the "slick GPS navigation system that includes voice activation" and available "Bluetooth and MP3 capability." Rounding out the list is a "rear DVD entertainment system," according to ForbesAutos.

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