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