2016 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
The 2016 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. (TODD GILLIS PHOTOS)

The Toyota Highlander was introduced in 2001. The second generation came along in 2008 and the third in 2014.

Over that period, it grew more than 17 cm in length and acquired a third row of seats and hundreds of kilograms in weight in the process.

There is no denying the laws of physics, more weight requires more power and more power requires more fuel.

While advances in engine and transmission technology have resulted in vastly improved fuel efficiency over the years, the best way to address this added weight and consumption is by use of hybrid or diesel powertrains.

2016 Toyota Highlander Interior

Toyota has chosen the hybrid route and become the acknowledged world leader in the process. It has made hybrid drivetrains available in a wide array of Toyota and Lexus vehicles.

The Highlander is no exception and the result as more power and uses less fuel than its conventional gas-only powered mate.

Both models have the corporate 3.5-litre V6 beneath the hood, but that in the Hybrid runs on the more fuel-efficient, but less powerful Atkinson cycle. That slight loss in power is more than made up by a high-torque electric motor.

The Hybrid can operate on the electric motor alone at low speeds but otherwise it is used for supplemental power under acceleration when merging, passing or climbing hills.

2016 Toyota Highlander Exterior

The big advantage of the hybrid is in city driving — up to 30 per cent more fuel -efficient. The electric motor is not used very often during highway cruising, but it is used when the all-wheel-drive system comes into play.

Under normal conditions, the system operates in front-wheel-drive mode. When additional grip is needed, the system switches to all-wheel-drive and an additional electric motor drives the rear wheel with a series of sensors distributing torque as required.

The whole package is managed by a very sophisticated but proven management system Toyota calls Synergy Drive. Under all conditions the Highlander Hybrid’s power is impressive for such a large, three-row SUV.

Other than the drivetrain and some changes to the instrument panel, the hybrid version is a duplicate of its gas-only sibling. And there has been very little change for the 2016 model year.

2016 Toyota Highlander

The Highlander remains an exceptionally well-built mid-size SUV and in Limited trim, like the test vehicle, boasts a roomy, upscale interior, and a wide away of luxury touches including a heated steering wheel, 12-speaker JBL audio system and three-zone climate control.

There are a number of well thought-out storage solutions including a small shelf scanning most of the width below the instrument panel suitable for cell phones and similar hand-held objects — because of an access slot to the 12-volt and USB outlets below.

The centre console is big and has a roll-top lid over a deep and commodious space below — sufficient for a 15-in laptop. There is also a 120-volt outlet so you can charge or run any number of low-powered devices.

There is lots of head, leg and shoulder room in either of the first two rows but the third is best left to small folks and/or short distances.

There is a decent amount of space behind the third row and a height-adjustable power tailgate that allows you to adjust it for parking spots with low ceilings.

The ride is especially pleasant thanks to a double wishbone rear suspension. It is also a very quiet highway cruiser thanks to excellent wind and road noise suppression. The steering provides decent feel at low speeds and the brakes do not have as much of the notchiness evident in other hybrid systems — one other area where Toyota’s hybrid expertise comes to the fore.

2016 Toyota Highlander Engine

There is no denying this is a heavy vehicle should you approach a turn or off-ramp with a little too much headway. The hybrid system and related battery adds more than 150-kilos to an already hefty vehicle.

All trim levels have an extensive list of safety features but the loaded Limited model checks off all the boxes: Blind Spot Monitor, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Lane Departure Warning, Adaptive Cruise Control, and Pre-Collision Warning.

This is a very competitive segment with entries from virtually all major manufacturers. The Highlander’s big advantage is Toyota’s proven level of quality and reliability.

The hybrid version also tops the list when it comes to fuel economy. But beware the cost. The Hybrid Limited costs about $7,500 more than the conventional gas-powered Limited model.

At $1 a litre and a combined city/highway fuel economy advantage of 3.2 litres/100 km, it would take more than 300,000 km of driving to recoup that extra up-front cost.

The specs

2016 Toyota Highlander Limited

Price: $54,960 base, $56,821 as tested including freight
Engine: 3.5-litre V6, AC motor, combined output – 280 horsepower
Transmission: CVT automatic, all-wheel-drive
NRC fuel economy, litres/100-km city/highway: 8.4/8.3
Length: 4,855 mm
Width: 1,925 mm
Wheelbase: 2,790 mm
Weight: 2,190 kg
Competition: Ford Edge and Escape, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Santa Fe Sport and XL, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Kia Sorento, Nissan Murano and Pathfinder