Behind the Wheel

Toyota Highlander vs. Highlander Hybrid: Choosing between them comes down to 2 things

The 2020 Toyota Highlander is a formidable SUV.

Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.

The 2020 Toyota Highlander is one of the best three-row unibody SUVs you can buy, if not the best. With few changes in the pipelune, the 2021 is likely to be the same. Toyota has sweetened the Highlander by offering a hybrid variant again in this generation, this time with a price just a smidge over the asking price for the traditional Highlander. Which is better? Several hundred miles behind the wheel of both gave the answer.

You see, there are three big differentiators between the Highlander and Highlander Hybrid, if we set aside the engineering discussions. The first is the weight. Not only is the Highlander Hybrid heavier (thanks, battery), it feels more substantial than the Highlander. Unlike the Lexus LX 570 or a loaded dump truck where the car's weight hinders its performance, the electrified powertrain in the Highlander Hybrid offers enough oomph to overcome its extra load.

2020 Toyota Highlander The 2020 Toyota Highlander is friendlier for modern families than the last version. Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.

Get behind the wheel of the traditional Highlander and its available 3.5-liter V6, and it almost feels lighter than it should, even with all-wheel drive. This isn't to say it seems lightweighted or chintzy. There's just a notable difference. Both stopped adequately and were able to hold their own in inclement weather - for the Highlander, that was a long drive in a blizzard with what amounted to eight inches of freshly fallen snow while the Highlander Hybrid handled a week's worth of rain in 24 hours like a champ.

The power supply for both was more than adequate. The V6 in the Highlander gets 295 horsepower and 263 pound-feet of torque. Toyota has given the Highlander Hybrid a 2.4-liter power plant that pairs with hybrid components to achieve 243 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque. With the electrified powertrain, the Highlander Hybrid is more spry but the Highlander doesn't fall far behind.

Here's the big difference - the Highlander (with AWD) gets 23 mpg combined while the Highlander Hybrid (with AWD) achieves 35 mpg combined according to EPA estimates.

They're also similar in the faults department. The Highlander's windscreen quickly fogged up when the snow began to fall, allowing no better than 50 percent visibility in the best of times. Despite a wide variety of trial and error regarding air conditioning, venting, heat, riding with the windows down, only having one passenger in the front, the screen was perpetually foggy whenever the temperature was below 35 degrees. The fog would be enough to drive me away from the Highlander, or, at the very least, expect a trip to the dealership for a fix at some point.

2020 Toyota Highlander The 2020 Toyota Highlander and Highlander Hybrid are nearly identical inside. Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc.

The windscreen of the Highlander Hybrid had issues as well. When tested earlier in the model year, it allowed the whine of passing air to permeate the cabin when accelerating. Sure, two vehicles isn't a pattern that should raise suspicion, it is enough to be noted.

With interiors and exteriors that are nearly identical - yes, that includes cargo space - the dilemma between Highlander and Highlander Hybrid comes down to fuel economy and price.

Toyota prices the 2020 Highlander to start at $31,830 and it goes up to $47,510, plus applicable taxes and fees. The 2020 Highlander Hybrid has a starting MSRP of $37,520 and tops out at $49,180. If you're comfortable spending over $40,000 on your new three-row SUV, you can't go wrong with the Highlander Hybrid. If you're constrained by budgetary concerns, getting a Highlander in a lower trim level won't make you feel like you're missing out too much, but you will pay for fuel fill ups more often.

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A new robot is helping with customer service at one Hyundai store in South Korea as part of a trial program.

Photo courtesy of Hyundai Motor Group

You're probably familiar with Wall-E. Now, meet DAL-e, a robot that is currently being tested as a customer service representative at a Hyundai Motor showroom in southern Seoul.

DAL-e is a acronym for "Drive you, Assist you, Link with you-experience." The robot uses artificial intelligence technology for facial recognition as well as an automatic communication system based on a language-comprehension platform to assist clients.

"The DAL-e is a next-generation service platform that can offer automated customer services anytime. It is expected to become a messenger capable of delivering consistent messages to customers in a more intimate and personal way than conventional robots," said Dong Jin Hyun, Vice President and Head of the Robotics Lab at Hyundai Motor Group.

Hyundai Motor Group's DAL-E robot

Photo courtesy of Hyundai Motor Group

"With continuous updates and improvements, the DAL-e will provide fresh, pleasant experiences to our valued customers in a contact-free environment. Our objective is to enable the DAL-e to engage in a smooth and entertaining communication with customers and present valuable services to them."

The robot has a truncated yet humanoid body that is designed to have a welcoming appeal to customers. It measures 1,160 x 600 x 600 millimeters and weighs jut 80 kilograms.

Engineers have given DAL-e "emotive physical features" and the ability to engage in "smooth dialogue" utilizing both speech and touch screen commands. Additionally, DAL-e can move freely throughout the store and even guide customers to designated spots using its four-wheel capability.

Customers learn from the robot as well as be entertained by it DAL-e is able to wirelessly connect to a large display screen at the back of the store and encourages visitors to take photos with it by providing gestured feedbacks with its movable arms. In the event that a customer enters the showroom without wearing a mask, the android recognizes it and advises the customer to wear one.

Hyundai Motor Group plans to continuously update the DAL-e based on data from pilot operations, perfecting its operational capabilities as an advanced android robot.

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Volvo is allowing Super Bowl LV fans to enter to win a free car - terms and conditions apply.

Photo courtesy of Volvo Car USA

Volvo Car USA Is bringing back its Volvo Safety Sunday campaign for this year's big game. This time around, they're giving away up to $2 million worth of cars.

When the Kansas City Chiefs take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Super Bowl LV on February 7, 2021, Volvo fans won't be talking about the old guard/new guard quarterback battle. They'll instead be hoping for a safety.

Here's how it works. For a chance to win a free car, contestants visit VolvoSafetySunday.com between January 25 and February 7, 2021 to design, in any trim and color available in the U.S. Entrants can build their car in the Volvo vehicle configurator or take a short quiz that will recommend a model based on their lifestyle. Once configured, users must click "Try to win this Volvo" on the summary page to enter. Full rules, terms and conditions can be found at VolvoSafetySunday.com.

Potential winners must enter the contest ahead of Super Bowll LV.Photo courtesy of Volvo Car USA

Volvo Safety Sunday 2021

Then, it's all up to the Chiefs and Bucs. It doesn't matter which team scores the safety. As long as one football lands in the end zone to score two points, there will be winners. Think it's a long shot? Remember that just last week the Buffalo Bills scored their first points of the game via a safety.

The giveaway is part of a larger push by Volvo to focus on the safety offered by their vehicles. The company is currently innovating to address the challenges of speed, intoxication, and distraction. Some of this work includes looking at how smart speed control and geofencing can automatically limit vehicle speeds near schools and hospitals in the future.

A new vehicle, designed to rise to meet some of this with hands-free driving software built in, is the redesigned 2022 Volvo XC90, which is expected to go on sale later this year. The XC90 is Volvo's best-selling SUV in the U.S. It comes in two- and three-row configurations, is available with a plug-in hybrid electric powertrain, and routinely is evaluated as having one of the poshest cabins in its class.

Last year, Volvo put $1 million worth of cars on the line to celebrate the more than one million lives saved by the three-point safety belt, a Volvo invention.

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