2024 Toyota Highlander Review: Hybrid still a contender, but there’s a grander choice


Pros: Extremely efficient hybrid model; quiet and comfortable cabin

Cons: Cramped third row; smaller-than-average cargo capacity; unrefined base engine; irksome tech

Three-row midsize SUVs are a great pick for growing families and the class is chock full of worthy choices. Standing out from this competitive crowd is no small feat, but the 2024 Toyota Highlander manages to do just that with its incredibly efficient hybrid model. It’s estimated to return as much as 36 mpg in combined city and highway driving, handily beating conventionally powered rivals that are only rated between 20 and 25 mpg.

The Highlander Hybrid also defies typical pricing by only costing $1,600 more than the four-cylinder non-hybrid model that is estimated at 25 mpg. The hybrid fuel savings are substantial enough to break even with the added up-front cost within a year and a half. If your priority is achieving the highest fuel efficiency, this is your best bet.

It’s more likely that your SUV needs go beyond just fuel savings, and although the Highlander is a generally competent entry, it ultimately is less competitive overall. Size would be a major reason. Despite a similar price tag to its competitors, adults and teens will find the third row tighter and less comfortable than those of rivals. There’s less cargo space behind that third row as well. The new, larger Toyota Grand Highlander solves those issues and since it too offers an ultra-efficient hybrid, we now recommend it as a top choice in the segment instead of this regular Highlander. The others would be the unassailable Kia Telluride, the related Hyundai Palisade, and the well-rounded Honda Pilot.

Interior & Technology   |   Passenger & Cargo Space   |   Performance & Fuel Economy

What it’s like to drive   |   Pricing & Features   |   Crash Ratings & Safety Features

What’s new for 2024?

Last year’s base L trim has been discontinued and the Bronze edition appearance packages have been replaced by the darker Nightshades. A power liftgate now comes standard on the XLE trim and higher.

What are the Highlander interior and in-car technology like?

Admittedly, the picture above is indicative of the higher XLE, Limited and Platinum trims – the lower LE is a rather dour and monochromatic affair. Yet, even those have above-average interior quality, and since the pricey trims tend to be popular, it’s worth extolling their virtues a bit. The earthy two-tone color schemes are distinctive, warm and generally inviting. The silver trim that wraps around the control binnacle like a fork is textured to make it look richer and more like actual metal. The wood trim on the dash and center console, be it real or not, is subtle and tasteful. The padded SofTex vinyl that covers much of the dash, doors and center console is pleasant to touch, while the real leather on the seats is buttery soft. All the switchgear is pleasant to touch and operate.

Standard on most trim levels is an 8-inch touchscreen interface, which is mounted high within easy reach and sight. The available 12.3-inch unit is largely similar in terms of its basic operation, but gains functionality by adopting a widescreen orientation. The operating system is the newest that Toyota has to offer, featuring bright, minimalist graphics and natural speech recognition. It’s responsive and runs quickly. The shortcut icons on the side closest to the driver are easy to reach, but they unfortunately disappear when you use Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, meaning you have to click-click-click to escape the Apple/Android interfaces rather than using a simple Home button like Toyota used to feature. There are other annoyances we discovered, particularly with the radio operation and navigation system, which make this system less appealing than those of rivals.

How big is the Highlander?

The Highlander is smaller than most of its competitors on the outside, which makes it slightly more manageable to maneuver and park. We’re only talking a few inches, though, as the Highlander is still an awfully big vehicle.

Not surprisingly, though, it also has one of the segment’s smallest interiors. There’s just a bit less headroom everywhere, but it’s the third row that’s noticeably much smaller than those of most competitors that can fit average-sized adults in its third row. Even if kids are the ones who frequently use third-row seats, they will be less comfortable in the Highlander’s.

Cargo space comes in at 16 cubic feet behind the third row of seats, 48.4 cubic feet behind the second row, and 84.3 with all the rear seats folded. Those figures are all small for the segment. In our luggage test of the Highlander, it was able to hold less stuff than its competitors can.

There is a solution in the form of the new 2024 Toyota Grand Highlander, though. As the name suggests, it’s a larger version that has been extended 6.5 inches nose-to-tail. That allows for more interior space, with the third row able to more comfortably accommodate adults. Cargo capacity also increases to 20.6 cu-ft behind the third row, and in its luggage test, it proved to be the new best-in-segment choice.

What are the Highlander fuel economy and performance specs?

Here’s where the Highlander is a big winner, at least in regards to the hybrid. The electrified Highlander uses a 2.5-liter four-cylinder paired with electric motors that produce a net output of 243 horsepower. That isn’t much for the segment, but then no large three-row crossover comes close to its fuel economy. EPA estimates weren’t available for 2024 at the time of this writing, but we anticipate them to be the same as those of 2023: 36 mpg combined with front-wheel drive or 35 mpg with optional all-wheel drive (it uses a second electric motor to power the rear axle and therefore provide all-wheel-drive).

The turbocharged four-cylinder, on the other hand, should be skipped. Unlike the silky smooth V6 it replaced, the turbo engine is loud, clattery and has less horsepower than most competitors. It does feature much more torque than most at 310 pound-feet, but the rough-sounding engine makes it sound like it’s laboring harder. And while Toyota claims reduced emissions, the owner doesn’t reap much of an efficiency benefit from the turbo engine. The 2023 model was estimated to return 25 mpg for the front-wheel-drive version and 24 mpg if you opt for all-wheel-drive.

The good news is that the turbo engine retains the smooth and fairly responsive eight-speed automatic. Front-wheel drive is standard, and two all-wheel-drive systems are available: a basic one that sends power to the rear wheels when extra traction is needed, and a more advanced system for the XSE, Limited and Platinum that can also differ the amount of power between the left and right rear wheels to further enhance traction (AKA torque vectoring).

What’s the Highlander like to drive?

This is by far the best Highlander to drive yet, and is also one of the most composed vehicles in the segment. It doesn’t feel that big behind the wheel, and the chassis and steering work nicely in concert with each other to create a driving experience that feels consistent regardless of whether you’re driving the kids to school, on a long highway trip or find yourself on a winding mountain road. It’s not an athlete like a Mazda CX-90, and we doubt the Highlander XSE will turn up the dial that much either, but in comparison to other family haulers, the Highlander nicely balances ride comfort and reassuring handling. There’s a Sport mode you can select, but the changes to the steering, throttle and transmission are difficult to detect.

The base turbo four-cylinder is loud, gruff and sounds strained when driven. Acceleration is certainly adequate, just delivered with a lot of complaint. Fortunately, the transmission is smooth, and none of the other Highlander positives such as the ride, handling and firm brakes are compromised by the meh engine. It should come as no surprise that we like the Highlander Hybrid better. It feels pleasantly quick off the line around town, and in certain conditions, will just hum along on electricity only. You also get the same above-average ride and handling as the turbo Highlander and, of course, unbeatable fuel economy for a modest price premium that could quickly be paid off in gas savings. Now, we will say that if you spend a lot of time on the highway and have a tendency to do a lot of passing while there, the Hybrid is probably not the best choice for you. You definitely notice its meager horsepower for a vehicle its size, and Toyota’s hybrid system unappealingly drones when under a heavy foot. We would suggest the Grand Highlander’s Hybrid Max powertrain offering instead, as it offers burly power and decent fuel economy, albeit at an elevated price.

What other Toyota Highlander reviews can I read?

Toyota Highlander Luggage Test

The Highlander gained more space behind its third row for the latest generation, but remains one of the smallest in the segment. We put that space to the test. Note that this was one of the earlier luggage tests we’ve done with much of the rest of the segment tested thereafter. You can find all Luggage Tests here. 

 

Toyota Highlander Platinum Interior Review

In this review and video, we discuss in detail the Highlander’s attractive and well-made interior. The infotainment tech has changed since then but everything else still applies. 

Toyota Highlander Interior

 

2020 Toyota Highlander and Highlander Hybrid First Drive

Our first driving impressions of both the V6 Highlander and the Highlander Hybrid, including more information about what’s new, its engineering and design. 

What is the 2024 Highlander price?

Pricing starts at $40,515 for the base turbo-powered Highlander LE, including the $1,395 destination charge. Pricing for the Highlander Hybrid pricing starts at $42,115 for the same LE trim. All-wheel drive is a $1,600 to $1,950 option depending on the trim level.

Even the base Highlander LE comes standard with a full complement of safety tech (see Safety section), adaptive cruise control, LED headlights with automatic high beams, proximity entry and push-button start, a power liftgate, three-zone climate control, an eight-way power driver seat, cloth upholstery, five USB ports (three front, two middle, all Type-C except one Type-A at the front), wireless Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, an 8-inch touchscreen and a six-speaker sound system.

Besides slathering on extra equipment, there are some key differences to be aware of in regards to the upper trim levels. The XSE pictured below is only available with the turbo engine, has sportier suspension and steering tuning, plus different styling and interior color options. It also offers the more advanced torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system, which is also optional on the Limited and Platinum. Finally, the $1,000 Nightshade appearance package adds a variety of dark-colored accents to what is otherwise a Highlander Hybrid LE or XLE.

You can find a full breakdown of features, specs and local pricing for the 2024 Toyota Highlander here and for the 2024 Highlander Hybrid here. All prices below include the $1,395 destination charge and are for front-wheel-drive models. All-wheel drive is a $1,600 to $1,950 option based on trim.

LE: $40,515

XLE: $43,665

XSE: $45,260

Limited: $47,770

Platinum: $50,970

 

Hybrid LE: $42,115

Hybrid XLE: $45,265

Hybrid Limited: $49,370

Hybrid Platinum: $52,570

What are the Highlander safety ratings and driver assistance features?

Every 2024 Toyota Highlander includes standard forward collision warning with pedestrian and cyclist detection, automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist, blind-spot and rear cross-traffic warning, automatic high beams and adaptive cruise control with steering assistance. The Limited and Platinum get reverse automatic emergency braking. We appreciate that all these systems are standard and that they can keep you safe, but they can certainly annoy. The lane-keeping assist system is overly intrusive and the adaptive cruise control system is a little lackadaisical in getting back on the gas when traffic ahead clears. Its lane-centering steering assist also leaves something to be desired.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety named the 2023 Highlander a Top Safety Pick+ for its best-possible scores in all pertinent crash protection and crash prevention tests. Its headlight ratings varied depending on trim level, and its LATCH anchors received a rating of “Good” for ease of use. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the 2024 Highlander five out of five stars for overall crash protection, along with a four-star frontal and rollover rating and five-star side protection rating.

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