The rugged visage of the 2018 Toyota Highlander Hybrid may hide its mild crossover manners, but this competent three-rower also offers a pleasant interior, supple ride, and a thrifty drivetrain. Holding it back from perfection is a muddled design, limited cargo space aft of the third row, and an infotainment system lacking Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Best Value

The 2018 Highlander Hybrid starts at $37,665 for the LE trim and can top out at over $49,000 for the Platinum model finished in optional Blizzard Pearl. All-wheel-drive is standard thanks to the electric motor on each axle, along with usual power features plus keyless entry with push-button start, front and rear air conditioning, eight passenger seating, Bluetooth, LED tail lights, eighteen-inch alloy wheels, and a wide range of advanced safety features including a rear view camera, forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, automatic headlights with high-beam assist, adaptive cruise control, and lane departure warning with steering assist.

The drivetrain consists of a 3.5-liter V6, two primary motor-generators (one for the front wheels, one for the rear wheels) and a secondary motor generator (generator, engine starter, transmission ratio control) matched with a CVT automatic.

We'd skip the base LE and head for the XLE which adds a flip-up rear hatch window, power liftgate, three-zone automatic climate control, blind spot monitoring, a moonroof, easier to clean leather, first- and second-row seating (heated in front), faux leather third row seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, second row sunshades, and a Driver Easy Speak system that amplifies the driver's voice through the rear speakers to keep the kiddies in check.

Here’s how we’d build it:

  • Model: 2018 Toyota Highlander Hybrid XLE
  • Engine: 3.5-liter V6, two electric motors
  • Output: 306 system hp
  • Transmission:Eight-speed automatic
  • Drivetrain: All-wheel-drive
  • MPG: 29 City / 27 Hwy
  • Options: N/A
  • Base Price:$42,725 (including $995 destination charge)
  • Best Value Price:$42,725

Performance

Toyota Highlander Hybrid

With an easy-on-the-wallet EPA-estimated 29 miles per gallon in the city, 27 on the highway, and 28 combined, the Highlander Hybrid features four season-friendly all-wheel-drive with a ride that's well-controlled and nearly Lexus-smooth. The nicely-weighted electric steering is accurate and light enough for easy, in-town parking and maneuvering.

On the flip side, the hybrid's 300 pound weight penalty versus the gasoline model makes it slightly slower, although it's only really noticeable at higher speeds. Off the line, the electric motor's torque provides a pleasant kick in the pants. The effect gives the big, three-row Highlander Hybrid a more city friendly driving character than other vehicles of this size.

While the ride is comfortable and detached, we'd avoid the nineteen-inch wheels on Limited and Limited Platinum models – they look great, but not enough that we can ignore the impact they have on ride comfort.

Style

An ungainly grille detracts from what is otherwise a handsomely rugged exterior that's wrapped around a pleasing interior. Inside, the wide, functional, two-tier dash features logically-placed buttons and knobs.

The front and second row seats are comfortable and supportive. We'd have no qualms at all about long-distance driving in the Highlander.

That said, if we were going on a trip, the first thing we'd do is drop the rear seats. For a start, they aren't very suitable for anyone over the age of 11, and when in place, the extra chairs gobble up cargo space. There's just 13.8 cubes with the third-row in place, but if you drop them into the floor, the cargo hold expands to 42.3 cubic feet. That's a lot of space to work with.

Broader problems with the Highlander reflect its age – plastics that were acceptable when it debuted in 2013 don't feel as luxurious in an age when leather-wrapped dashes are common. The Highlander gets worse as you move from front to back, with the quality of cabin materials in all models dropping off. But as Toyota has proven with the latest Camry and the new Avalon, it has the ability to bring impressive materials to bear in its mainstream models – there's little reason to think the company won't fix these problems in the next-generation Highlander.

We also hope Toyota fixes the lack of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which is particularly glaring at this price point. Speaking of that infotainment system, its lack of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is just the tip of the iceberg. It's old. Really old. The graphics are unattractive and the interface is cumbersome.

The Best and Worst Things

The Highlander Hybrid's comfortable interior and exceptional fuel economy are offset by a polarizing front end and lack of storage behind the third row.

Right For?

Toyota Highlander Hybrid

The Highlander Hybrid's excellent fuel economy and long list of advanced safety features make it one of the smarter vehicle purchases a family can make.

Wrong For?

At the same time, considering the Highlander Hybrid's polarizing front end, style conscious buyers need not apply.

The Bottom Line

The 2018 Toyota Highlander Hybrid's muddled design, limited cargo room behind the third row, and lack of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are more than offset by comfortable seats, a smooth ride, and excellent EPA numbers. It's not an engaging or terribly imaginative crossover SUV, but it's got the essentials modern families need.