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2012  Toyota Highlander Hybrid SUV

2012  Toyota Highlander Hybrid SUV

2012  Toyota Highlander Hybrid SUV

2012  Toyota Highlander Hybrid SUV

2012  Toyota Highlander Hybrid SUV

2012  Toyota Highlander Hybrid SUV

2012  Toyota Highlander Hybrid SUV

2012  Toyota Highlander Hybrid SUV

2012  Toyota Highlander Hybrid SUV

2012  Toyota Highlander Hybrid SUV

2012 Toyota Highlander Hybrid SUV - FROM $38,715

Combining seven-passenger seating with excellent fuel economy and performance, the 2012 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is a very appealing alternative to conventional crossovers.

2012  Toyota Highlander Hybrid SUV

What's New for 2012

For 2012, the third-row seat and rear climate control are now standard on all Highlander Hybrid models.

Introduction

The 2012 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is an answer to a vexing conundrum facing environmentally conscious car shoppers these days. How can one reconcile the need for a vehicle with room for a crowd and all their gear while at the same time satisfying a desire to drive the greenest set of wheels to be found?

As the most fuel-efficient seven-passenger vehicle on the market, the midsize Highlander Hybrid fills a unique niche. Its gasoline-electric hybrid powertrain turns in EPA mileage estimates that are roughly 50 percent better than comparable non-hybrid crossovers and 25 percent better than the only other seven-passenger hybrids on the market. And if you do most of your driving in traffic, the Highlander Hybrid's EPA estimate of 28 mpg city should get your attention.

Just as important, the Highlander Hybrid's powertrain puts out a combined 280 horsepower, which gives it remarkably good acceleration and decent towing capacity, two things hybrids typically lack. Other strengths include a smooth ride, a comfortable interior and styling details like a distinctive grille and blue-tinted light surrounds that help set it apart from the conventional Highlander.

As good as the 2012 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is, it does have a couple of weaknesses. First, the standard 50/50-split-folding third-row seat is really only suitable for young kids. The real potential deal-breaker here, however, is a price tag that's about $7,000 more than a comparable conventional Highlander, a difference that would take a long time to make up through the money you'll save at the gas pumps.

As far as alternatives are concerned, the only other hybrid SUVs on the market include the smaller five-passenger Ford Escape (an aging design that's about to be redesigned for 2013) and the pricier Lexus RX 450h hybrid. To get a seven-passenger hybrid, you'd have to step up to GM's more expensive and less efficient Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid/GMC Yukon Hybrid twins.

Overall, the Highlander Hybrid's many strengths and its lack of viable competitors make it an obvious (and best) choice for eco-savvy buyers who still need the passenger and cargo capacity of a utility vehicle.

Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options

The 2012 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is a seven-passenger midsize crossover SUV offered in two trim levels: base and Limited.

The base model's list of standard equipment includes 17-inch alloy wheels, automatic headlights, foglamps, rear privacy glass, keyless entry, cruise control, air-conditioning (with rear controls), an eight-way power driver seat, a tilt-and-telescoping steering column, a sliding and reclining 40/20/40-split second-row seat with a removable center section, a 50/50-split-folding third-row seat, a trip computer, a rearview camera, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, and a six-speaker sound system with CD player, satellite radio and an iPod/USB audio interface.

Options for the Highlander Hybrid base model include 19-inch alloy wheels and a power liftgate. The Leather package includes leather upholstery (vinyl third row), heated front seats, a sunroof, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and an upgraded trip computer. The Cold Weather package adds a windshield wiper de-icer and heated mirrors.

All of the above options are included on the Limited trim along with 19-inch wheels, additional chrome exterior trim, keyless ignition/entry, tri-zone climate control, 10-way power driver seat and a four-way power passenger seat. Both trims can be equipped with a nine-speaker JBL sound system (includes a six-CD changer), a navigation system (includes a touchscreen interface, real-time traffic and the JBL sound system) and a rear seat entertainment system.

Powertrains and Performance

Powering the 2012 Toyota Highlander Hybrid is a hybrid powertrain consisting of a 3.5-liter V6 gasoline engine and a trio of electric motors. It all adds up to a healthy 280 hp, which is transferred to the pavement via a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) and a standard all-wheel-drive system that uses a separate electric motor to power the rear wheels when there's a need for extra traction or acceleration.

In Edmunds performance testing, the updated Highlander Hybrid went from zero to 60 mph in 7.4 seconds, which is pretty quick even by conventional crossover standards. Properly equipped, the Highlander Hybrid can also tow trailers up to 3,500 pounds.

This muscle is even more impressive considering this powertrain's EPA fuel economy estimates, which stand at 28 mpg city/28 mpg highway and 28 mpg in combined driving.

Safety

The 2012 Toyota Highlander Hybrid comes standard with antilock disc brakes, traction and stability control, front side airbags, side curtain airbags that cover all three rows, a driver-side knee airbag and active front head restraints. Also standard is a hill-start assist feature that keeps the vehicle from rolling backward when starting off on a steep incline. In Edmunds brake testing, the Highlander Hybrid came to a stop from 60 mph in a tidy 120 feet.

In government crash tests, the Highlander Hybrid earned an overall rating of four stars (out of a possible five), along with four stars for overall frontal protection and five stars for overall side protection. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the conventional Highlander the top rating of "Good" in both frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests.

Interior Design and Special Features

You may buy the 2012 Toyota Highlander Hybrid for its environmentally friendly propulsion system, but it's the comfortable passenger cabin you're likely to appreciate the most. Aside from good quality materials and an attractive design, the interior features nice touches like the 40/20/40-split second-row seats that slide up and back for better legroom and recline for greater comfort. The center section can also be replaced with a convenient table or removed altogether for easier access to the standard third row.

Kids will fit in the third row, but adults probably won't, and if you intend to haul a full allotment of passengers on a frequent basis, then everyone will be happier in a minivan or a larger crossover like the Chevy Traverse or Ford Flex. Overall cargo space is also less than in those models (as well as the Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid), but you still get seats that disappear into a flat load floor and a still impressive 94 cubic feet of maximum cargo room.

Driving Impressions

Unlike some other environmentally friendly models, the 2012 Toyota Highlander Hybrid has enough oomph under the hood to deliver satisfying acceleration. The hybrid system switches from the electric motor to the gasoline V6 and back almost imperceptibly and an "EV" mode, accessed by a dash-mounted switch, allows you (albeit rarely) to drive the vehicle on electric power alone for short distances at slow speeds. An "Econ" button modifies throttle response to further boost fuel economy.

As far as handling goes, the Highlander Hybrid feels confident if not very inspiring. You will likely feel in more control of large crossover rivals, as the Toyota's steering has a disconnected feel. The brakes also have an odd feel due to their regenerative braking system. On the upside, the Highlander Hybrid offers a smoother ride and more maneuverability than the full-size Chevy Tahoe Hybrid.