Redesigned a couple of years ago, the new Highlander continues to be one of our favorite rides. Every time we have the opportunity to get behind the wheel its amazing features, we had forgotten about, continue to impress us at every turn. This is however our first experience with the Hybrid version of the vehicle that does indeed include all the other great features along with outstanding mileage numbers.

Since the Highlander really was designed with the family in mind- especially the mom, Deanne had really taken to driving it the most whenever we have the opportunity. After swapping out vehicles on Tuesday, it was Saturday before Craig had his chance with the Highlander, that’s how much she liked.

The biggest reason for this is that the new interior sports all kinds of new materials, and features that make the Highlander one of the most family friendly vehicles in the market today. The folks at Toyota really put it best by saying “The all-new Highlander is a no-compromise, mid-size, three-row SUV that brings together the best in style, technology, comfort, capability, and safety. Its exterior design conveys both refinement and strength, which complements a totally redesigned interior that will raise the bar in its segment.”

This is a statement we have found to be true with all kinds of reasons for mom and even dad to like the Highlander, and not just because it is a great kid hauler and has many features aimed directly at that purpose. The design just seems to set it apart from the rest of the pack.

A couple of the really great features that stand out to us as Toyotas has endeavored to make the Highlander and vital part of their customers lives are first the new center console that sports what could only be described as a cavernous center cavity capable of holding a large women’s purse along with a laptop and various other articles, in fact Toyota has even claimed to put 70 juice boxes in the compartment. Maybe the next step is to add a refrigeration option to the console, so that all sorts of things could be kept chilled.

The second is the shelf that runs from the center console to the passenger side door that becomes a great location for setting phones, glasses and other small objects; in fact they have even included dividers to stop objects from sliding around and a pass through hole to run a phone charger wire up to a phone or iPod. Once again thinking of a very active family and what would work best for them.

Some other great changes that will make mom the happiest with a new Highlander would be that now both rear captain seats will slide forward allowing access to the 3rd row of seats, so you don’t always have to enter from the passenger side to climb into the back.

On the new Highlander the designers have also increased the cargo space behind the 3rd row of seats by 34% making it much easier to store grocery bags behind the seat, as this was not the case in the 2nd generation of the Highlander. On getting access to the rear they have also listened to the active mom and made the rear window a hatch that will open without opening the entire lift gate, great for when you only have a couple small items to put into the rear.

The lift gate in the Limited version that we drove also comes standard with an automatic opening option. The 3rd row of seats is also now a 60-40 split allowing many more options of seating arrangements after a trip to the local hardware or greenhouse where more flat space is needed to get that cargo home!

Another very unique element that caught our attention was a really cool feature called ‘Driver Easy Speak.’ Immediately the question came to our mind, what exactly could driver Easy Speak possibly be? It sounded like some kind of far out way to control the car, or perhaps navigate the features included with the phone or infotainment device. Turns out that none of our first ideas were right, in fact, it was something completely different.

This system when engaged allows the driver to communicate with passengers in the rear via the cars stereo system. In other words it allows mom to get the kids attention without having to yell at the top of her lungs, although the first time it’s used- it will give mom the supreme commander position in the vehicle!

We did find the Hybrid version to have some added power that we did not experience with the regular Highlander as the engineers have added a pair electric motors to the mix, one on the front axle and one on the rear, that up the horsepower from the normal 231 produced by the 3.5 liter V6 motor to a total output of 280 horsepower.

In a week of cold weather Utah driving that included a trip to Salt Lake and a bunch of city driving we got a respectable 28.5 mpg, slightly better than the 28 the EPA said we should expect. We were also happy to have the all-wheel drive addition on our tester as there was and abundant amount of snow during the week to really put the Highlander to the test and it passed with flying colors, handling it with ample traction.

The limited edition that Toyota sent out was loaded with pretty much everything we could have wanted, except a DVD player. The panoramic moon roof was awesome, especially on a clear winter night; rain-sensing wipers were continually in use with all the moisture that accompanies a good snowstorm.

The leather heated and cooled seats were very comfortable even on longer drives, the rear captains seats were also heated…. a nice touch when we had friends in the Highlander with us, there was even a heated steering wheel that made the ultra-cold mornings easier to manage.

Just in case one might have thought that Toyota has forgotten the male part of the equation, that’s just not the case, all versions of the new Highlander come with Bluetooth capabilities and included as standard equipment the upgraded JBL sound system with 13 green edge speakers, and a 8- inch- high definition touch screen with navigation. These features are sure to keep any male more than engaged.

There have also been many alterations to the outside that were made to appeal to the male ego as the Highlander has taken on a more macho look. It now goes from looking more on the minivan side to a true SUV contender with an overall enhanced chiseled body. The front end looks way more rugged than previously, following along the lines of the new redesigned Tundra and 4Runner. So guys, no more worries, you are going to look respectable driving the new Highlander! On top of that, with an available towing package, the Highlander will pull up to 5000 pounds.

On the safety side there are all the basic airbags and such included with in the Highlander along with rear cross path detection, blind spot monitoring, radar controlled cruise control, and lane departure warning in the limited package. A backup camera comes standard on all models of the new Highlander, but the limited gets upgraded dynamic grid lines curving to show exactly where the vehicle is headed.

The new Highlander is the quintessential family vehicle, in fact- if we were to have closed our eyes while driving it, and we don’t recommend doing this, we definitely would have thought that somehow we were diving a new Lexus instead of a Toyota, it really is that nice and luxurious! This vehicle has to be on anyone’s ‘check it out list’ if you’re in the market for something that the whole family is going to take advantage of.