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The newly-designed third-generation 2015 Toyota Highlander has shed its boxy design for an updated exterior and sleek interior.

Car Review: 2015 Toyota Highlander

© Scott Tilley


Let’s go places … no matter what the weather is outside …


When it comes to midsize SUV’s, the family demographic is typically who the car manufacturers are building the midsize SUV for.  With three rows of seating capacity, cargo capability, and an available all-wheel-drive, you would think Toyota was thinking that as well when designing the 2015 Toyota Highlander, but you would be wrong.  The newly-designed third-generation 2015 Toyota Highlander has shed its boxy design with an updated exterior that has sleek and smooth lines and an interior that is similar to the its cousin Lexus.


I had originally lined up the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, so that I could take a weekend trip out to East Texas and write about how Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive® system works in a midsize SUV like the Highlander; but with all the snow and ice that was creating such problems in North Texas, I wasn’t sure my article was going to get written. As I watched the news the night before my trip, I saw that there would be a window of about 2-3 hours the next day in the afternoon where I might be able to sneak out after the snow storm and before the next ice storm.  I figured if I could hit that window I could escape with all the quarter panels and bumpers intact. After all, it was not my vehicle.


When I awoke the next morning, there had been a lot more snow that had fallen in my part of the city than had been predicted.  So I looked at my owner’s manual and the spec sheet that came with the Highlander to see what kind of super powers the Highlander Hybrid had to get me through this wintery nightmare. I knew I had the Limited Platinum Hybrid with the 3.5 V6, but I was pretty sure that much horsepower was not going to be needed for my escape out of my winter wonderland.  I kept looking and came across the three little letters that anyone who has to deal with snow and ice likes to see - AWD.


I quickly packed and waited patiently for my 2-3 hour window to arrive. To pass the time, I decided to go out and start the Highlander so the three-zone climate control heater could warm up the inside enough to melt off the snow and ice that had accumulated on the Highlander.  I was happy when I saw that the heater was able to warm up the whole interior of the Highlander, because I was not thrilled with the idea of scraping and chipping off all the ice and snow. If I would have had to scrape it off, I would have been fine; the Highlander has vented leather captain’s chairs (heated in the winter and cooled in the summer) for the front as well as the second row. The Highlander also comes with a warmer in the steering wheel.


The Adventure That Never Was


When my window of time arrived, I jumped into the Highlander and started out on my snowy adventure.  I knew the first challenge I would encounter would be the hill on my street.  Earlier in the day, I watched as someone in an older two-wheel-drive SUV burned their right rear tire flat from spinning it so much trying to ascend the hill. The Highlander, with its AWD and traction control, zipped right up the hill without any slipping or sliding whatsoever.  The next hour was a relatively easy and a very safe trip compared to what I had prepared myself for.  It was pretty anticlimactic. 


All the safety systems on the AWD worked like they were supposed to, but I honestly think the FWD Highlander would have done just as well too.  The Highlander is a very safe and well balanced midsize SUV and it drives like it has the foot print of a full-size SUV. Even if I had managed to get into some type of trouble, I was confident I would be safe because the Highlander has one of the top safety records in its class.


After about an hour of driving 10-15 mph, I exited onto Interstate 20 by Balch Springs and the wintery adventure was over. The interstate road was only wet with a trace of snow around the fields almost looking like it had just rained. It was interesting because the day felt similar to driving through the Eisenhower tunnel in Colorado; beautiful and sunny on one side of the tunnel and a full-blown blizzard on the other side. That is Texas weather for you.  I set the cruise for the next destination which would be a quick stop in Canton at Baker’s Ribs for a ½ dozen of assorted flavored fried pies.


I got back onto I-20 and was able to settle in for the rest of the trip and finally enjoy all the comforts the Highlander offers.  The Toyota Corporation’s engineers really upped the luxury level with the new third-generation Highlander.  The comfort and styling of the interior with the use of first-rate materials is on par with most luxury SUVs.   It also offers an option for a full roof moonroof, which is probably pretty spectacular when you are not looking at snowflakes and grey clouds.


The technology the Highlander offers includes an easy to use eight-inch touchscreen system and Toyota's Entune app suite with 12 JBL speakers. I had preset earlier in the week my favorite XM radio stations, so I was happy when I could change my listening choices from the AM stations I used for my wintery escape to all the great XM stations that bring a different type of escape.  One of the more ingenious ideas for storing and charging your smart phone is the tastefully designed inset shelf within the dash.  Whenever I get into a car, I am always looking for a place to put my phone, and this one is perfect.  The charging cord is even hidden away.


As for the rest of the trip East and the Sunday ride back to Dallas, it was very uneventful.  I was actually able to see how the Hybrid Synergy Drive® system works. It is the drive train technology that pulls the different power sources together to make the Highlander run as smooth as glass.  The Highlander, along with the other Toyota vehicles that use this system, is a true hybrid and can in fact run off the battery only.  The Highlander has a 3.5L V6 ECVT with a pair of electric motors (one each for the front and rear axles) that creates 280 hp.  Hybrid Synergy Drive®  is “smart technology, telling the car when to switch between gas and electric power and when to combine both for maximum efficiency,”


Bottom line is the Highlander Hybrid ran just like a gas powered car. When I needed more speed to make the pass the speed was there and then some with no pause or hesitation.  The gas mileage was really good as well on the highway and in town.  Toyota government specs say you will get 28 mpg highway.  I got 27.1 mpg with mostly interstate driving, which I felt was really good for an AWD SUV.


No Need for an Outlet


One more techno geek comment and it comes directly from Toyota and it is about the batteries: “Because the battery receives plenty of charge from the petrol engine when coasting and from the regenerative braking system when slowing down, our hybrid cars never need plugging in to a main supply.” And so, we didn’t have to look for place to plug in.




With my trip over and the sun finally shining today for the first time in quite a while, I was able to reflect on my trip. The Toyota Highlander is a really well designed midsize SUV that acts like a full size; and when you add the hybrid technology, it makes the Highlander a special vehicle. U.S. News and World Report ranked the Highlander Hybrid not only the Top Affordable Hybrid in the midsize SUV class, but ranked it number 4 against all gas powered midsize SUV’s.


Now I do think the AWD is overkill for most of Texas and a FWD is fine, because we only get roughly 2-3 weeks of wintry weather. I do however feel the AWD would be a great option for the Texas panhandle or areas of the U.S. which are prone to more regular snow and ice accumulations.  The Toyota Highlander Hybrid AWD was built as most SUV’s are for the family demographic, but I found that it really is the SUV that can make a strong case for the empty nester looking for a really nicely styled luxury SUV.


Car Featured in Article


Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited Platinum
Price $51,899.00
Platinum Package: includes Driver Technology Package (Safety Connect®, Pre-Collision System with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control (DRCC), Lane Departure Alert (LDA) with Automatic High Beam headlights), panoramic moonroof, heated steering wheel, heated perforated leather second-row captain's chairs.


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Toyota - Highlander