With the success of the Prius, it was no surprise that 2016 Toyota Highlander LE V6 gave the hybrid treatment to more cars in its lineup. The first was the Camry derivatives, which includes the Highlander.
The test vehicle, a 2016 Toyota Highlander LE V6 in top-line Limited Platinum trim, has Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system, but it’s quite unlike the system in the Prius. In the Highlander, a 3.5-liter V-6 is combined with three electric motors, two in front and one in the back.
One of the front motors is a generator and an electric starter for the engine; the other does the work of helping propel the front wheels. The motor in the back drives the rear wheels. Both the driving motors also help with regenerative braking.
It’s not that the 2016 Toyota Highlander LE V6 is a bad looking crossover, its just so…innocuous. It looks more cohesive than its little brother, the RAV4, and the front end styling is attractive and moderately aggressive. But the rest of the styling is just bland.
In fact, from the rear three-quarter or side view, it’s hard to differentiate it from its biggest rival, the Honda Pilot, from a distance. It’s definitely designed so as not to offend, and because of that it’s only average looking. It’s nowhere near the Mazda CX-9 or the newly redesigned GMC Acadia, two good-looking SUVs, but it’s better looking than the frumpy Nissan Pathfinder.
Inside is pretty much the same story. Materials are above average and, as expected of a Toyota, build quality is exemplary. It has some over-designed features, like the clamshell doors on the center console, but for the most part, it’s a pleasant if not spectacular interior.
The infotainment system is the same, typical Toyota Entune system that, like in the Camry and RAV4 I recently reviewed, it’s intuitive and easy to use. But the user interface and the system itself is in dire need of an upgrade, especially as Android Auto and Apple Car Play are becoming more prevalent. The Toyota system offers neither.
About 2016 Toyota Highlander LE V6 Hybrid’s powertrain as the most powerful it offers, and it is, beating out the gas-only V6 by 10 horsepower (280 vs. 270). It also behaves seamlessly, much like the Prius. The engine turns on and off when the system deems it so, with the electric motor taking care of launches from a standstill before the V6 kicks on and helps out.
But this behavior, along with the fun-sapping continuously variable transmission, sucks any driving enjoyment there might have been from the car. Granted, a midsize crossover isn’t purchased with driving excitement in mind, but competitors like the Mazda CX-9 and even the larger Dodge Durango, which has a similar price, offer at least a modicum of fun.
The big Highlander isn’t the best choice for carving canyons – really, no larger crossover is – as it wallows around corners in a nausea-inducing manner. The steering is also odd. It has effort, but not the good effort. It feels as though you’re winding a large rubber band that wants to snap back at any moment. And snap back it does – removing your hands from the wheel mid-turn results in the steering wheel zipping back towards the center.
The effort is not linear; it’s exponential. The more you turn the wheel, the more difficult it is to turn. I don’t know if it’s a problem with the hybrid or if this behavior is universal among all models, but this Highlander is by far the worst handling vehicle I’ve ever driven, not only just for TFL but ever. This is odd to me as well because all the other vehicles I’ve driven that use the same platform – the Camry, the Avalon, the Sienna and the Lexus ES – don’t exhibit this behavior and actually have decent steering.
The Highlander, then, likes to stay in a straight line, which is good for highway burning. It’s pretty good at that, but the ride isn’t as good as it should be for a car that is so obviously not tuned for handling. On a stretch of I-25 that is, shall we say, less than good, the Highlander hopped over the expansion joints in a most unpleasant fashion. I take this stretch of highway quite often, and the Highlander was one of the most noticeable hoppers.
Being a three-row midsize crossover, interior room is generous, at least for the four front passengers. Seats are comfortable, but the steering wheel angle – more minivan than SUV – makes it more difficult to find a comfortable driving position than the Camry sedan upon which it’s based. The second-row captain’s chairs have a lot of legroom and adjustability, but they wobble over bumps noticeably when not occupied.
The third-row seat is best left for those of a smaller stature. I was able to fit back there – I’m 5-10 – but I didn’t like it very much. There’s also not a lot of storage space behind those third-row seats – 13.8 cubic feet or less than a compact hatchback. The Sienna minivan, which shares the same platform, has 39.1 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats. The Pilot has 16.5 cubic feet and the Pathfinder has 16.
The 2016 Toyota Highlander LE V6 is a well-made, well-executed midsize crossover, but the unengaging engine, the odd steering and the wallowy handling, coupled with the complete lack of value of the hybrid powertrain, makes it a questionable choice in the midsize crossover segment. I’ll reserve judgment on the steering and handling of the non-hybrid model, but the hybrid as it is now is just not a very good vehicle. Rent it, and you’ll get some gas savings for the week or so you’ll drive it. But if you want to buy a Highlander, walk right past the hybrid and look at a V6.
Special Thanks and Source: Toyota Highlander