In my test of the Toyota 4-Runner Trail edition, I said that midsize SUV was probably best-suited to folks who had serious off-roading to do. For everyone else, there’s the Toyota Highlander– and for those sick of getting 4-Runner-like fuel economy out of car-based crossover SUVs, there’s the Toyota Highlander Hybrid.
The 4-Runner and the Highlander compete in the same size category and are priced similarly, with the 4-Runner having a base MSRP of $31,490 and the Highlander checking in at a slightly lower $28,870. Of course, these are vastly different utility vehicles designed with different purposes in mind. omething fathers everywhere have said at one time or another in their life kept cropping up during my back-to-back weeks in the 4-Runner and Highlander Hybrid: Picking the right tool for the job.
Where the 4-Runner’s body-on-frame truck underpinnings contributed to a slightly stiff ride and heavy handling characteristics, the Highlander Hybrid’s car-based unibody construction contributed to a smoother, quieter ride and a more nimble feel. Compared to the tough, almost lumbering feeling I got driving the 4-Runner Trail– itself the most trucky and off-road-biased of the 4-Runners– the 2013 Highlander, even in Hybrid guise, felt positively like a sportscar. In addition, its lower ride height and what felt like larger daylight openings in the glass contributed to a lighter feel in the cabin and better visibility while driving– in particular, while parking.
Since the majority of shoppers in this size of this particular segment are decidedly not schlepping the kids through untended, rain-dampened savanna on the way to school and the office every day, it’s no surprise you probably see a lot more Highlanders on the road than 4-Runners nowadays. But our particular test vehicle– the Highlander Hybrid– is still somewhat of a rare bird among them. Save for the hybrid-identifying badges on the exterior, you wouldn’t easily tell it apart from a Highlander Limited. That’s because the Hybrid is a Limited, and even has the Limited badging on the liftgate.
I’m thinking the rarity of the Highlander Hybrid might be due to its cost, more than anything. Our tester rang in at nearly $50,000– plenty steep, and actually a wide margin higher than our 4-Runner Trail’s $41,403. That’s a large step from the $28,870 base price mentioned above. There’s little chance you’ll ever realize a payback on the fuel savings of the Highlander’s hybrid powertrain, as its EPA rating of 28 MPG highway is just four MPG more than the non-Hybrid Limited that achieves 24 MPG highway– all while saving you more than $10,000 on the window sticker. Even with gas prices on a seemingly never-ending upward arc, where I come from, $10,000 buys a lot of gas. As in, probably more than you’ll ever burn in this Highlander unless you keep it for more than one decade.
For some people– and okay, maybe a lot of hybrid vehicle shoppers– that payback issue might not matter at all. There’s status in that there Hybrid Synergy Drive logo, and Toyota knows it. There’s also a distinct possibility that the hybrid powertrain makes the Highlander a quieter, more luxurious ride than its standard 3.5-liter V6 gasoline engine, much as the hybrid mill did for the Lexus ES, in my opinion. Until we get an opportunity to test a non-hybrid Highlander, however, I can’t say for sure.
Disclosure: Toyota provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas.