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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New hot hatch

Toyota teases GR Corolla hatchback

The Instagram teaser contains many hints at the new GR Corolla.

Toyota

Toyota isn't always top of mind when it comes to performance cars, but the Japanese giant has a few tricks up its sleeve. There's the Supra, which the automaker partnered with BMW to produce and there's also the not-for-the-U.S. GR Yaris. The hotted-up hatchback features tremendous power and a four-wheel drive system, but buyers here can only watch jealously as our friends in Europe and elsewhere get all the fun. That's about to change for U.S. buyers, however, as Toyota has begun teasing the GR Corolla hatchback, which we will get.

The automaker posted a cryptic image to Instagram a month ago, but it's still making the rounds on the internet today, with users of the GR Corolla Forum still discussing the post today. The teaser, which is of the Corolla's interior, features hints as to what we might see when the car debuts. The navigation screen shows GR Four road, which points to the car's four-wheel drive system, while a G:16 on the clock in the gauge cluster represents the G16E-GTS engine that the car is expected to get. The GR Yaris also sports that engine, where it produces 268 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque.

Toyota GR Corolla GR, or Gazoo Racing, is Toyota's motorsport armToyota Europe

The GR Corolla should break cover next year, but we don't yet know if it will be a 2022 or 2023 model. As far as pricing goes, Toyota may pull out some surprises, but the car will likely be far more expensive than an everyday Corolla. The smaller GR Yaris is priced starting at nearly $40,000 in Europe, so the Corolla's price tag should be around or slightly above that number.

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The CX-50 features body cladding and rugged styling.

Mazda

Mazda's got a busy 2021 and 2022 as it gears up to release several new vehicles. The first is almost here, and today the automaker shared preliminary details. The CX-50 is an all-new SUV that shares a platform with the Mazda 3 and CX-30.

2023 Mazda CX-50 Production begins in January 2022. Mazda

At first, the CX-50 will be offered with Mazda's 2.5-liter four-cylinder engines, one of which is turbocharged, but electrified powertrain options will join the lineup down the road, including a traditional hybrid. Both gas engines come with a six-speed automatic transmission and standard all-wheel drive. A new drive mode select system is also standard that allows the driver to change the CX-50's behavior to match road and driving conditions such as towing and off-roading.

2023 Mazda CX-50 A new drive mode selection feature allows the driver to change vehicle behavior. Mazda

The new SUV's styling is a departure from the norm for Mazda, whose typical designs are sleek and elegant but far from rugged. That changes with the CX-50. Mazda installed beefy fender flares, body cladding, and a chunky front bumper that make the SUV look ready for the trail. New colors debut with the CX-50 as well, including Zircon Sand for the exterior and a terracotta upholstery option for the interior. The SUV will be the first Mazda to be offered with a panoramic sunroof.

2023 Mazda CX-50 New color schemes are available for both the interior and exterior. Mazda

We don't have full pricing or options details yet, but Mazda says that the CX-50 will be built at the facility in Huntsville, Alabama that it shares with Toyota. Production is scheduled for January 2022.

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