What is it like to drive?
You won’t be surprised to learn that the Highlander isn’t the last word in dynamicism: this is a big car that always feels like it. You’ll pull away on pure electric most of the time (good), and the engine will kick in pretty quickly (bad) after that. It’s a decent hybrid system with definite advantages, but it’s not exactly hyper-efficient - there are diesels of this size that offer this kind of mpg with much better acceleration figures, and a good deal more enthusiasm.
The same goes for the way the Highlander handles, in that there’s a feeling of genial comfort if you take things super-easy - and drive on smooth roads - but the veil of sophistication is actually pretty thin. There’s body control, there’s accurate enough steering, there’s decent braking performance and a general lack of wallow and pitch - but there’s precious little satisfaction.
As for the other stuff, it’ll pick up on bad road surfaces fairly aggressively, particularly liking lateral ridges and expansion joints, and the motor sounds faint but industrial. Obviously the effect of that engine drone is exacerbated by the fact that the car comes equipped only with an ‘e-CVT’ (continuously variable transmission) which seeks out a torque peak and simply sits there, but even so, it’s a bit of a dull grumble.
There are paddles that introduce fake ‘gears’, by the way, but they don’t really seem to have a huge amount of effect, so it’s better to just sit back and drive the car a bit slower. And that’s where the Highlander actually makes most sense, because the engine and transmission combo is initially perky and then tails off to a comfortable and serene cruise. You just end up driving to suit it, rather than it encouraging anything else. It’s fine, in other words.
The driver can choose between several drive modes - Eco, Normal, Sport and Trail - with all four modes still usable when the vehicle is operating in the EV mode. They fiddle with the usual parameters - throttle map, electronic aids, ABS etc - but to be honest, Normal is default and the car is most suited to that Goldilocks setting. It’ll probably cope with a little light off-roading, but we didn’t have the opportunity past a rough rural driveway.
Worth also noting that Toyota makes a point of the Highlander being able to tow a couple of tonnes, but a Volvo XC90 manages 2,400kg. An Audi Q7/VW Touareg 3,500, and either Land Rover Discovery or Defender also manage 3,500 - so the the big ‘Yota is actually towards the bottom of the class on that score. Even the excellent new Kia Sorento manages similar.
There’s also a very long list of assistance systems (Pre-collision with pedestrian and cyclist detection - even at night - emergency steering assist and intersection turn assistance, adaptive cruise with ‘curve speed reduction’, a system called lane trace assist and lane departure warning, a road sign reader and automatic high beams). It’s all there.
But to be brutally honest, there are a myriad of other cars in this sector that are more satisfying to drive, and that’s where the Highlander feels like it contains an excess of vanilla. When you’re constantly thinking ‘this is fine’, you might not be thinking ‘I want to spend £50k+ for ‘fine’’.