Mountain Wheels: Toyota’s Highlander Hybrid ups the mileage for winter travel

I had a special early holiday season gift last week in the form of a 2018 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, a last-minute add to my test schedule which allowed me to spend much of last weekend getting to early-season sessions at the local hills.

The Highlander is one of the more popular offerings in the midsized crossover category, and the vehicle’s hybrid option provides families with a mixture of space, versatility and adequate highway- and pass-crossing power, with some additional fuel savings thanks to the electrified setup. Each of the Hybrid models also comes equipped with on-demand all-wheel drive, which is enhanced with the second of two electric motors pushing power to the rear wheels to stabilize the ride and offer improved traction.

I enjoyed the top-end build of the four trims available, a Limited Platinum edition which was fully equipped at $48,280 — the only options that had been added were a remote starter kit and a rear bumper protector.

Inside, the three-row machine was configured with two captain’s chairs in the second row – with a flop-down utility and cupholder tray for those passengers – in addition to the small third row seating, set up for three passengers. Alternately, you can order a second-row bench seat to add space for another passenger.

I opted to fold almost all of that down for my trip to load up on ski gear, keeping one of the second-row spots open for friends I ferried to Breckenridge for surprisingly extensive early-season terrain last Friday.

I’ve long appreciated the 192.5-inch-long Highlander as being about the right size for comfortable travel and overall driving experience — it lacks the monstrosity of the Sequoia or Land Cruiser and all of their various full-size SUV competitors. A family of seven-plus might have to opt for a rooftop gear box; for me and my friends’ usage, the vehicle had plenty of space, plus wide-opening second-row doors and a curiously slow-to-deploy automatic rear liftgate.

Drop all the seats as I did at first and you get 83.7 cubic feet of cargo space; with the third-row seats up, you’ll still find 13.8 cubic feet of short-range-travel space.

The most recent generation’s retooling of the Highlander’s look has produced a smooth body line with a slightly more pronounced stance, and a very prominent and distinctive chrome grille.

Probably the biggest thing you’re going to notice about the Highlander Hybrid’s motoring behavior is the sheer normalcy of the experience. Yes, when you start the car in the morning, and it is not cold as blazes, you may not even activate the engine at all — though defrosting and preps for cruising will usually bring the 3.5-liter V-6 to life.

The Toyota Synergy Drive system matches that engine with a high-torque-output electric drive motor, producing an impressive overall 306 horsepower. That’s delivered through an electronic continuously-variable one-speed automatic transmission, which produces good overall acceleration and reasonably reactive power.

Yes, trying to pass someone on the steepest parts of the tunnel approach or Vail Pass will produce ample revs and buzzing — the instrument panel demonstrates that revving as engine power usage, instead of traditional RPMs — but it’s not as slack and disconnected as other CVT systems.

The overall mileage produced is not earth-shattering. I fell somewhat below the suggested 28-overall MPG, getting closer to 26 on average, but in-town, likely non-winter-condition city numbers are said to be 29 MPG. Still, compared to the 22 or 23 combined MPG produced by the standard gasoline models, it’s a considerable jump.

I will offer full-time mountain residents the warning that the vehicle’s standard all-season tires were not the ideal setup for an evening jaunt last Saturday from Wildernest to Frisco, in the middle of that short snowstorm. I had significant downhill traction issues, and I’m certainly glad the vehicle’s two-stage AWD system was doing all it could, but I would say you might want to ask them to upgrade you to real winter tires as a precautionary measure.

The vehicle’s litany of additional safety systems do provide lots of extra benefits. A cool feature is the Driver Easy Speak system, which amplifies the driver’s voice so that passengers in the furthest reaches can hear what you’re saying. In the high-end configuration, you also get the bird’s eye view camera system as a standard option, which allows you to see around the perimeter of the vehicle at curb level while parking or navigating in traffic or low-impact off-road settings.

The Limited Platinum edition was also outfitted with a heated steering wheel and first- and second-row heated seating, plus a full-cabin panoramic sunroof and a dark chrome finish to the 19-inch wheels.

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